Speakeasy Stage’s ‘Bridges’: Romance in … Iowa?

Christiaan Smith and Jennifer Ellis in Speakeasy Stage’s “The Bridges of Madison County.” Photo: Glen Perry Photography

BOSTON – Who knew a farm in Iowa could be so romantic?

But it most certainly is in the Speakeasy Stage Company’s production of the musical “The Bridges of Madison County,” now at the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts through June 3.

“Bridges” marks yet another triumph for the actress Jennifer Ellis, who in recent years has put her stamp on several prime female musical theater roles in shows such as “My Fair Lady,” “Carousel,” “Wonderful Town,” and “The Most Happy Fella.”

Here she is Francesca Johnson, who marries American GI Bud Johnson (Christopher Chew) and escapes war-ravaged Naples at the end of World War II for the flatlands of Iowa.

It tests her acting abilities in ways they haven’t been tested since Speakeasy’s “Far From Heaven” or her comic triumph in “Out of Sterno.”

The musical, featuring a lush and romantic Tony Award-winning score by Jason Robert Brown (“The Last Five Years”) was a modest Broadway success with a four-month run, winning Brown Tonys for his score and orchestrations.

The book of the musical by Marsha Norman is based on the slim volume by Robert Waller that sold 60 million copies and obviously spoke to a lot of people. Norman’s adaptation works well in conjunction with the score to dramatically portray a torrid four-day affair that could – and did – become a life-changing event.

To the events of Waller’s book, Norman adds a squabbling son (Nick Siccone) and daughter (Katie Elinoff), comical neighbors and an assorted bunch of farm folks to flesh out the production numbers.

“Bridges” begins in the mid-1960s, with the Johnson family leaving for the Iowa State Fair and Francesca looking forward to a few days alone.

Her marriage to Bud has been perhaps more of a sincere friendship with a son and daughter instead of a torrid love affair, and Francesca has long known and felt that something is missing, and it isn’t just the homesickness for the Italy she left to move to Iowa. Still, she has been a dutiful wife and mother and repressed her desires for something more.

Kerry Dowling and Will McGarrahan in “The Bridges of Madison County.” Photo: Glen Perry Photography

The hole in her heart is finally filled when a man stops to ask for directions to a nearby covered bridge. It’s a dashing National Geographic photographer named Robert Kincaid, played by Christiaan Smith, returning to Boston, where he attended the BU Opera Institute and starred in several productions.

One thing leads to another, and then it’s beer, dinner, an all-but-forgotten bottle of brandy, and … you guessed it.

Robert has spent many years hopping from place to place, never tethered to any one place, but suddenly he seems willing to stop right where he is with Francesca in the middle of Iowa.

With both Ellis and Smith in such strong voice and music director Matthew Stern in sync with the principals, this may be the best performance of a Brown score in Boston in recent memory.

Lest we get too wrapped up in just our two leads, Norman’s book calls for a little comic relief and it comes in the form of Speakeasy favorites Kerry Dowling and Will McGarrahan, playing good-hearted but nosy neighbors, and Brown even gives them a a chance to show their vocal chops, Dowling in a sizzling “Get Closer” and McGarrahan in a folksy, bluesy piece called “When I’m Gone.”

The role of a Iowa farmer is a reach for leading-man-type Chew, but he makes a stolid, earnest Bud, who when he returns from his trip knows his wife is a very different person.

Alessandra Valea does well in two key supporting roles and the talented ensemble includes Ellen Peterson, Peter S. Adams, Edward Simon  and Rachel Belleman.

Director M. Bevin O’Gara skillfully manages the show’s schmaltz factor; it never teeters on the edge of becoming maudlin.

Ellis employs a noticeable but not overdone Italian accent throughout that neither waxes or wanes as some do. Amelia Broome, as she so often is, is the dialect coach.

We’ll go no further on what happens after the lovin’, but the Norman book and Brown score will touch on such questions as: What happens when your responsibilities and commitment to your family collide with your own personal wants and needs?

Brown’s score expresses those wants and needs with a splendid combination of poetic lyrics and an impressive array of musical genres.

Be prepared for the rush of emotions that will descend upon you with the combination of Brown’s score, Norman’s book, and the assorted fine performances. My partner went through one handkerchief. You might need two.

The Speakeasy Stage Company production of “The Bridges of Madison County.” Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Book by Marsha Norman, based on the novel by Robert James Waller. Directed by M. Bevin O’Gara. At the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts through June 3. SpeakeasyStage.com