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The Bridges of Madison County
Book by Marsha Norman, Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Based the Novel by Robert James Waller
Original Direction by Bartlett Sher, Direction Recreated by Tyne Rafaeli
The Fox Theatre
April 5, 2016

Elizabeth Stanley, Andrew Samonsky Photo by Matthew Murphy The Bridges of Madison County National Tour

Elizabeth Stanley, Andrew Samonsky
Photo by Matthew Murphy
The Bridges of Madison County National Tour

The Bridges of Madison County was one of those books that everyone seemed to be reading in the early 1990’s. It has since become a well-known film, and now it’s a musical, featuring a score by one of the most celebrated modern composers, Jason Robert Brown. And the score is gorgeous, as are the production values. Unfortunately, despite a good cast, the story isn’t quite as gorgeous.

Although this was a best-selling book and a popular movie, I haven’t read the book and this version is the first adaptation I’ve seen. It tells the story of a lonely Italian woman, Francesca (Elizabeth Stanley) who married an American soldier after World War II and moved with him to his farm in Iowa. After years of living with Bud (Cullen R. Titmas) and raising their now-teenage children Carolyn (Caitlin Houlahan) and Michael (John Campione), Francesca is bored with farm life and misses Italy. When Bud and the kids take a trip to a state fair to show off Carolyn’s prize steer, Francesca stays home, where she soon meets traveling photographer Robert Kincaid (Andrew Samonsky), who has been sent by National Geographic  to take pictures of the area’s famous covered bridges. He stops at Francesca’s to ask for directions to the last bridge, and the two are soon intrigued by one another, as Robert has recently traveled to Francesca’s hometown of Naples and his more worldly, less conventional outlook on life intrigues her. They begin an affair, despite the frequent calls from Bud and Francesca’s neighbor and friend Marge (Mary Callanan) to check up on her.

This affair is apparently supposed to be life-changing for both Francesca and Robert, but the way it’s presented in this musical, I don’t really buy it. Everything moves too quickly and isn’t given the proper resonance. I keep finding myself sympathizing with the nice-but-boring Bud, and with his and Francesca’s kids, who have no clue what’s going on back home while they have their own “adventures” at the fair that don’t have much bearing on the rest of the story. The music is gorgeous, representing a variety of styles from a more classical sound to country and folk, and there are some stand-out songs, some with clever settings like Marge standing in for a radio singer singing “Get Closer” as Robert and Francesca dance. There’s also the haunting “Who You Are and Who We Want to Be” and Robert’s memorable “It All Fades Away”, but despite the beautiful music, the story around the songs reads as kind of shallow, with the connection between Francesca and Robert seeming little more than superficial, and the story’s continuation after the key events making the supposedly torrid affair seem kind of pointless.

The show looks great, as well. With a positively stunning set design by Michael Yeargan, adapted for the tour by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams and beautifully realized lighting by Donald Holder and Michael Jones, the atmosphere of the sweeping farmlands of Iowa is well-embodied. There’s also excellent, well-suited costume design by Catherine Zuber that captures the style of the time period.

The cast for this show is also excellent, led by a top-notch performance by Stanley as the disillusioned Francesca. Her presence and strong voice help to make her character relatable despite the lack of chemistry with Samonsky’s nice-looking but somewhat bland Robert. The real stand-outs in this cast are the supporting performers, especially Callanan as the nosy but supportive neighbor Marge, and David Hess as her affable, loving husband Charlie. Houlahan and Campione are also excellent as Francesca’s children, the nervous but determined Carolyn and the initially rebellious but well-meaning Michael. Titmas is also fine in the somewhat flatly written role of Bud, and there’s a strong ensemble that fills out the cast, representing townspeople and various people from Francesca’s and Robert’s personal history.

The Bridges of Madison County is  a good-looking, great sounding show, but I wish it was more than that. It’s set up as a great love story but it doesn’t come across that way, especially with the lack of chemistry between the leads and the sense that most of the subplots are merely window-dressing for the unconvincing main event. I haven’t read the book so I don’t know if the story is better told in novel form, but here it’s all kind of thin. Still, it’s Jason Robert Brown, so the music is wonderful, and the songs are well-sung.  There’s enough here for a reasonably interesting story, but I wish there had been more of a point to it all.

Elizabeth Stanley, Andrew Samonsky Photo by Matthew Murphy The Bridges of Madison County National Tour

Elizabeth Stanley, Andrew Samonsky
Photo by Matthew Murphy
The Bridges of Madison County National Tour

The national tour of The Bridges of Madison County plays at the Fox Theatre until April 17, 2016.

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Parade
Book by Alfred Uhry
Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Directed by Christina Rios
R-S Theatrics
September 5, 2013

Pete Winfrey, Jennifer Theby-Quinn Photo by Michael Young

Pete Winfrey, Jennifer Theby-Quinn
Photo by Michael Young

This has been a great year for theatre in St. Louis. Of all the shows I have seen in 2013, only one has rated less than “very good” to me, but still there are those few truly transcendent productions that stand out even from a great crop of contenders. R-S Theatrics’ ambitious production of Parade is one of those stand-out productions. This is the first production from this company that I have seen, and to say I’m impressed is an understatement. I was bowled over by the level of talent, intensity and sheer drama of this production of a show that is certainly not a “feel good” musical. It’s raw, intense and stunningly real presentation of subject matter that can be difficult to watch and process, but needs to be told and is done so is a truly involving and compelling way.

This is not a happy musical, to put it mildly. Parade is the story of the famous case of Leo Frank, a New York-raised Jewish factory manager in 1913 Atlanta, Georgia, who was accused and convicted of the murder of 13-year-old factory worker Mary Phagan, even though he was almost certainly innocent (and was eventually pardoned in 1986). It’s the story of a Southern town unable to forget (and, in fact, celebrating) its Confederate past with all its problems and inequities all wrapped in a rosy idealistic formula, as most of the town turns out—miniature battle flags in hand and waved enthusiastically–for the annual Confederate Memorial Day celebration. Meanwhile, Leo (Pete Winfrey) feels his detachment not only from the town and a culture that romanticizes the Old South, but also from his own wife, Lucille (Jennifer Theby-Quinn), who is also Jewish but grew up in Georgia and views herself as a part of Southern society. In this setting, the murder of the well-liked young Mary (Beth Wickenhauser) brings all the doubts and distrust of the “outsider” Frank to the boiling point and bringing the whole town into the spotlight and all the ugliness of racism and antisemitism to the surface, as well as some other unsavory elements such as the thirst for revenge at all costs–represented notably by Mary’s friend Frankie Epps (Zach Wachter), and the self-serving desire for political advancement at all costs, demonstrated primarily by District Attorney Hugh Dorsey (Ken Haller).

The players in this production are excellent, with particular stand-outs being Haller as the charismatic but corrupt Dorsey, Wachter as the grieving and increasingly vengeful Epps as well as an idealistic young Confederate soldier at the start of the show, and Marshall Jennings as the smooth-talking factory janitor Jim Conley (who most historians believe was the real murderer). Jennings grabs the stage–and the audience’s attention–and won’t let go in his chillingly energetic numbers “That’s What He Said” (at Frank’s trial) and “Blues: Feel the Rain” (in Act 2). Kevin Hester is sympathetic as the conflicted governor Jack Slaton, to whom Lucille Frank appeals for help, and Shawn Bowers (as night watchman and original suspect Newt Lee), Alexis Coleman (as the Franks’ house maid Minnie McKnight), Kay Love (in a dual role as Mrs. Phagan and Mrs. Slaton) and Wickenhauser as Mary deliver strong performances as well, with Bowers and Coleman delivering one of the show’s strongest musical moments at the beginning of Act 2 in “A Rumblin’ and A Rollin'”. This is a show full of powerful musical moments from the very beginning (the haunting “Old Red Hills of Home”), to the sweetly comic (Frankie and Mary’s “The Picture Show”), to the disturbing (most of the trial), to the heartbreaking (Mary’s funeral) and the hopeful (the Franks’ “This Is Not Over Yet”). This is a cast of fine voices, and the ensemble carries the mood of the show convincingly as well.

In the midst of all this tension and injustice is a tragically beautiful love story, anchored by the truly brilliant performances of the two leads. As Leo and Lucille Frank deal with trying to prove Leo’s innocence, the initially emotionally distant couple find not just answers, but each other, and this relationship is portrayed compellingly and with much warmth and honesty by Winfrey and Theby-Quinn. Individually, their performances are the centerpiece of this production–Winfrey’s initially cold and nervous and increasingly vulnerable Leo, and Theby-Quinn’s gentle and polite but ultimately fiery and determined Lucille. What’s more, all of their scenes together are outstanding, with the devastatingly intense “All the Wasted Time” being perhaps the best single scene I’ve seen on stage all year. Their chemistry is more than believable—it’s electric, and their efforts to say all the things they had left unsaid is almost unbearably honest, but so deeply compelling it’s impossible to look away. It’s all the more tragic seeing their relationship develop and watching all the tenderness and intensity of this scene, all the while knowing what is going to happen ultimately. It’s one of those moments where I find myself wishing I could just freeze the show right at that point, so these two can have their moment and nothing bad will happen, but this isn’t that kind of show. The genius of this show, and this production, is that it can make the audience wish for a happy ending even when it’s not possible. We want it to be possible, but it’s not to be, and the final scene, displaying the aftermath of the tragedy, is gut-wrenchingly effective.

The time and place are effectively suggested by a minimal set–a darkly painted stage, starkly lit, with a a few set pieces and furniture brought in as needed to suggest the factory, the courtroom, a jail cell, and more. It all plays particularly well in the ornate, red-curtained Ivory Theatre, with period music playing before the show to set the mood, and the excellent musical ensemble playing Jason Robert Brown’s excellent score.

I don’t cry easily at shows, but this production had me near tears on at least three occasions. Even though this is based on a true case and the exact circumstances have changed since 1913-15, the issues of prejudice, pressure for conformity, and the dangers of mob mentalities and vengeance, as well the overarching message of reconciliation as personified by the Franks themselves, are still relevant today. Stories like this need to be told, and R-S Theatrics has told this story with clarity and truth. It’s a remarkable piece of theatre.

Parade Ensemble Photo by Michael Young

Parade Ensemble
Photo by Michael Young

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