On the farm, far from home11/11/2015
Over the years, “The Bridges of Madison County” has become more of a woman’s story. The No. 1 novel of 1993 by University of Northern Iowa graduate and professor Robert James Waller never much developed its female lead. Francesca, the farm wife whose fling with a photographer provides the plot, remained little more than a Neapolitan war bride in covered-bridge country. In the movie, however, Meryl Streep invested the character with greater depth. Then in 2014, the Broadway musical made the wife the center of things.
Elizabeth Stanley, the Iowa native who plays the lead, goes so far as to say this was “a goal” for Marsha Norman, the woman who wrote the script.
“Marsha understood this was Francesca’s story,” says Stanley, pointing to “Look At Me” as the song that shows off the wife’s growth.
“In that one, she feels a new part of herself awakening,” she says.
Powerful as the ballad is, though, Stanley wouldn’t say it’s her favorite. The score won Jason Robert Brown his third Tony Award last year, and so “it’s impossible,” the actress claims, to single out one piece for praise. She points out that another number has enjoyed the most attention, and it isn’t one of Francesca’s. Rather, the song that’s already getting covered is her lover Robert’s meditative farewell, “It All Fades Away.”
Co-star Andrew Samonsky, Stanley adds, has already worked up “the romantic chemistry” necessary for such numbers. The tour’s rehearsals have been in New York with the entire creative team, and she’s found Brown, in particular, “really generous” in allowing players to give a role their own “footprint.” Stanley, though she’s done TV and theater across New York, has never tackled work like this, describing it as “almost opera, in keeping with my character’s background.”
The Cedar Rapids native has usually showcased another side to her talent, “a Lucille Ball quality,” she adds. She finds Francesca “a wonderful dramatic challenge.”
Drama matters in this musical more than leather lungs or twinkling toes.
“We’ve got dancing with the townspeople and the family,” Stanley assures me. “But it’s more about story than spectacle.”
Sets are sparse. The bridges appear in skeleton form against shadowy backdrops. The music will be live, combining a traveling orchestra and locals. At the Civic Center, those musicians will be the first outside of Manhattan to handle the material. Where else, after all, would the tour of “Bridges” begin? Des Moines Performing Arts was one of the show’s sponsors on Broadway, and the arrangement included hosting the national premiere.
For Stanley, this means “lots and lots of people coming in.” A few of her family still work the same Stanton farm it has for generations. Then, too, one afternoon during the run, she’ll return the favor and take the cast to see the bridges they’ve all been singing about.
“Everyone’s really looking forward to it,” she says. “It’s the perfect tour sendoff.”
Overheard in the Lobby: “Charley’s Aunt” starts this weekend in Ames. CV
John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.