Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale. Caroline Nicolian and David Toole.
If you’ve been living under a theatrical rock in Pittsburgh for the last several years or you haven’t yet seen Carnivale Theatrics’ dazzling production of The Bridges of Madison County, it may seem like one of those pairings is not like the others. Sure, Caroline Nicolian and David Toole’s shelves are not yet fully stocked with Oscar and Tony gold like the shelves of those other twosomes. Still, I compare them to those greats not just because they’ve all taken on the roles of Francesca Johnson and Robert Kincaid created by Robert James Waller for his best-selling novel of the same name, but also because they are just that good.
For Streep and Eastwood, a moving picture was worth a thousand words and yet another Best Actress Oscar nomination for Streep. For O’Hara and Pasquale, the fact that a simple trip to a Broadway show can be worth a thousand dollars nowadays prevented the original 2014 production of Bridges from running longer than three months. For Nicolian and Toole, a regional theatre production is worth a thousand emotions. And they show every one of them on that stage.
We lay our scene in fair Iowa in 1965 where Italian immigrant housewife Francesca meets absurdly handsome photographer Robert while he’s taking pictures of the town’s famous covered bridges for National Geographic. After a couple innocent chats and dinners together, they let their lust and yearning for real connection overcome them. They spend most of the remaining days while Francesca’s husband and children are away in bed, with little care about who may or may not be looking on. [the_ad id=”7283″]
While Connor Bahr’s clumsy, ill-paced direction only connects the dots of Waller’s story, Ms. Nicolian and Mr. Toole bravely color outside the lines of characters who, in the hands and voices of lesser actors, could be one-dimensional. Despite the steamy nature of their affair, Nicolian’s Francesca and Toole’s Robert wouldn’t be found on the cover of a romance novel. They’d be featured in a National Geographic spread as subjects who boldly wear their “almost real” and “temporarily lost” labels on their sleeves, even when their shirts come off.
Their chemistry in the early scenes is like the chemistry in a baking soda volcano: awkward and juvenile, yet undeniable. Librettist Marsha Norman’s tense, soul-bearing dialogue sizzles long before things truly get hot and heavy. You won’t want her scenes to end, but you’re grateful whenever music director Robert Neumeyer’s lush (albeit also ill-paced) orchestra swells into song.
Nicolian and Toole stick the landing on every feat of vocal gymnastics created to double Tony-winning effect by composer/original orchestrator Jason Robert Brown. Without pulling any vocal punches in the proceeding two hours, they manage to reach their combined full power with the show-stopping Act II duet “One Second and a Million Miles”.
With her unimpeachable performance, Ms. Nicolian firmly establishes Francesca as one of the musical theatre canon’s most challenging and complex roles for actors of any gender. In establishing Francesca’s insecurity and quirkiness early on, she makes the change Robert inspires in her all the more thrilling to track. For many of her songs, she is left to command the stage solo and does so brilliantly, particularly when Francesca recounts the heart-wrenching story of how she grew up in and eventually fled WWII-ravaged Italy in “Almost Real”.
When she’s not alone on stage, Ms. Nicolian is matched note for note by Mr. Toole. Rather than resting on his obvious sex appeal to win over Francesca and the audience, he bares his heart to show that Robert also has a lot to lose and reckon with if these relations evolve into a relationship. His soulful, stirring vocals are perfectly suited to Robert’s sweeping ballads, including “It All Fades Away”.
The Bridges of Madison County may revolve around those farm-crossed lovers, but Nicolian and Toole were not the only stars shining in this production. This show is about community after all, and, while they may be dysfunctional, nosy, and bitter, here the very well-realized supporting characters are the reason why Francesca’s choice between Robert and her family is so monumental. Daniel Krell as Bud, Caroline Lucas as Carolyn, Katy Williams as Marge, and Lara Hayhurst as Marian all excel at infusing comedy and deeper pathos into the piece.
The rest of the ensemble create the world of the show as vehicles for Michael Yeargan’s artfully bare sets and Kim Brown’s quaint costumes. Rounded out by Mr. Neumeyer’s picturesque lights, this is a recognizable world.
Allegheny County has tons of bridges, and today’s technological and social advances have convinced us all that we’re photographers. So, unless you disagree with Francesca that love, even in the face of its ephemeral nature, is always better, you should try to connect with the next person you see snapping a picture of one of those bridges. What’s the worst that could happen?
Carnivale Theatrics’ The Bridges of Madison County runs through July 7th at the New Hazlett Theater. For tickets and more information, click here.
Categories: Archived Reviews