Moving, not mawkish: Iconic Iowa tale ‘Bridges of Madison County’ comes to Eastern Iowa

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Revival Theatre Company Presents: The Bridges of Madison County

Dows Fine Arts Center, Coe College — through June 3

Christina Farrell as Francesca in Revival Theatre Company’s production of ‘The Bridges of Madison County — photo by Greg Billman

This weekend, the musical version of The Bridges of Madison County makes its Eastern Iowa premiere at Revival Theatre Company at Coe College, Dows Theatre in Cedar Rapids. (The touring production launched in Des Moines in 2015.) It runs through June 3; tickets are $20-40.

Set in Winterset, Iowa in 1965, Robert Kincaid, a roving photographer for National Geographic comes to town to shoot the titular bridges. Lost, he shows up at the door of Francesca Johnson, an Italian war bride, whose husband and children are gone to the Iowa State Fair for four days. Francesca helps Robert find Roseman Bridge, invites him to her home for ice tea and to stay for dinner, and they embark on a brief affair that changes both of their lives.

Robert James Waller’s 1992 bestselling novel inspired both Clint Eastwood’s 1995 film starring Eastwood and Meryl Streep, garnering one of her many Academy Award nominations, and the 2014 Broadway musical, with book by Marsha Norman and music & lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. The novel is romantic and sentimental, the film is sparse yet sensuous and as directed by the founders of Revival Theatre — Artistic Director Brian Glick and Musical Director Cameron Sullenberger — this production is moving, passionate and nostalgic, while avoiding mawkishness.

Aaron Brewer as Robert and Christina Farrell as Francesca in ‘The Bridges of Madison County,’ running in Cedar Rapids through June 3. — photo by Greg Billman

The ensemble numbers focus on rural life, and tend toward folk, country and traditional musical styles; the orchestra deftly covers this range. While the dialogue of Norman’s book is sometimes stilted (especially when she is adapting Waller’s dialogue), there is an easiness between Francesca’s two feuding children, the rebellious Michael (Jackson Bartelme) and the spunky Carolyn (the talented and radiant Lily Gast). Joshua Fryvecind as Richard “Bud” Johnson is poignant as Francesca’s husband. Bud is a good husband, father and neighbor, and Fryvecind’s characterization is affable and practical. He sings his country-inflected numbers with an easy twang.

Composer Jason Robert Brown wished to compose his own La Traviata, Verdi’s tragic opera of lost chances and a doomed love, and in the love affair of Francesca and Robert, the musical turns to the operatic mode. It is for this range of musical styles, from country to opera, that Brown was nominated for Best Original Score. Aaron Brewer is rangy and alluring as the photographer, expressing his developing desire for Francesca in his strong tenor, and he belts out his lingering love in his last solo “It All Fades Away.”

While Waller’s novel focuses too much on the male gaze and doesn’t fully develop Francesca’s complexity, both Eastman’s film and the musical focalize around Francesca. This is her comedy—in the love story of Francesca for her children, husband, home and small town—and her tragedy—finding Robert too late in life. And the role calls for a nuanced actress who can indicate her multifaceted desires and dreams. Christina Farrell, an accomplished classical singer, excels in the role of Francesca, slowly developing the character’s layers, and capturing both her repressed yearnings and her dedication to her family in her rich mezzo-soprano.

Christina Farrell as Francesca in Revival Theatre Company’s production of ‘The Bridges of Madison County. — photo by Greg Billman

The hexagon-seating of Dows Theatre creates an intimate space with “windows” projected above the seating to indicate the passage of time over the four days of Francesca and Robert’s affair. Scenic designer Scott Olinger bifurcates Francesca’s cozy kitchen from the rest of the stage with a raised wooden runway that serves as the famed bridge as well as isolating Francesca from the rest of the town. This staging also works well to indicate how suffocated Francesca feels in Winterset, along with the gossipy Marge (a delightfully comic Jan McCool) spying on the Johnson homestead and the early ensemble number “You’re Never Alone,” which is about neighborly kindness and also nosiness.

Unlike the novel and film that both play with a framework tale of the adult Johnson children attempting to piece together Francesca’s secrets after her death, the play moves chronologically — maybe too much so. The opening number, “To Build a Home,” may establish one of Francesca’s lifelong desires to settle down, marry and have a safe and secure home life, but we return to that dream in the much more forceful number of the second act, “Almost Real,” and a version, too, in Bud’s yearning “Something from a Dream.” In the second act, Francesca must decide between her family and her love, and in the number “When I’m Gone,” we see how her decision has affected her husband, her children and her whole community.

While the affair is brief, and changes both Francesca and Robert’s lives forever, the musical also demonstrates the intricacy of Francesca’s many loves: her Italian fiancé Paolo, killed during the war; Bud, the dashing American soldier and stalwart provider; her children; her town of Somerset. The tragedy is not that she misses her chance with Robert, but rather that it takes her so long to find her love at home.

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