THE BASICS: The regional premiere of the Broadway musical version (2014) of the former hit novella (1992) and movie (1995) plays weekends at the Kavinoky Theatre through February 2nd. Loraine O’Donnell, the Kav’s Artistic Director, directs a cast of twelve. Musical direction is by Allan Paglia. The play, with its single intermission, runs somewhat in excess of 2 ½ hours.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Winterset, Iowa, 1965. Francesca Johnson, former Italian war bride, has made the tough transition to the American heartland. She has a solid, respectable mate, and is the mother of two argumentative but blossoming teens. When these significant others go off the state fair for a few days, the briefly liberated Francesca finds herself directly in the path of temptation. Robert Kinkaid, a charismatic, free-wheeling, “hippie” photographer for National Geographic has been sent to photograph the county’s famous covered bridges. Things begin innocently enough, but it isn’t long before the two find themselves in the grip of a consuming, potentially life-altering passion.
THE PLAY, THE PLAYERS AND THE PRODUCTION: Despite its pedigree, BRIDGES, the musical, is an odd commodity. It’s one part State Fair/Charlotte’s Web, two parts old-fashioned, star-crossed-lovers soap opera (Hollywood loved making these; pick your favorite!). In order for it to work, you’ve got to believe in a special kind of love (monster caps), the kind that moves mountains, changes lives forever, outlasts everything. The sort of love that 19th century writers and poets believe in and celebrated. Now I’m a sappy romantic by present day standards, especially for a guy, but I have trouble with the concept. What is presented onstage here seems, to me, like a standard-issue, high intensity, four day affair, wrapped up in tons of glorious verbiage by two lovers who appear to be closet philosophers. Librettist Marsha Norman (‘Night, Mother) is plenty able with conversation, but occasionally peoples the stage with oddly incongruous characters. Moreover, she includes too much stuff that is extraneous to the Francesca/ Robert relationship. BRIDGES is long, and feels even longer. My wife dozed through sizable chunks. Do we really need all these other characters? I wonder if this might not have been more interesting and effective as a two hander…
What is presented onstage here seems, to me, like a standard-issue, high intensity, four day affair, wrapped up in tons of glorious verbiage by two lovers who appear to be closet philosophers.
The songs by Jason Robert Brown are patchwork, a mixture of different styles. This didn’t really bother me; the lack of really strong, take-home melodies is a serious minus, however. The use of wordless choral passages is an unusual score feature. The love lyrics are deep-dish philosophical, pretty darn pretentious.
Director O’Donnell has recruited some of Buffalo’s best musical theater talent. You can expect a lot of fine singing, some of it truly booming. The love songs populating Act II lean toward the operatic. Better I liked Kelly Copps’ one moment in the spotlight, singing a winsome Joni Mitchellesque ballad, “Another Life”. Michelle Marie Roberts makes a lovely Francesca. As the slender plot thickens, and the poor woman is literally being torn in two, we feel her pain. I also admired Ms. Roberts’ gentle Italian accent (apparently coached by Amanda Sharp). Big hunky Steve Copps always cuts quite the figure onstage, but, at least as done up for this show, looks more like a stevedore than a hippie photographer. As I watched, I kept thinking “Somebody ought to cast him as Billy Bigelow…”
Allan Paglia’s crack ensemble, I presume hidden in one of the curtained boxes, performed with aplomb, nicely supporting the singers without drowning out the lyrics. A special shout out to Inga Yanoski, whose expert onstage country fiddling was a small highlight.
The complex video design of Brian Milbrand is encompassing and distinctive; it definitely adds.
IN SUM: The Kav, which now fully rivals Musicalfare as the place for high quality homegrown musicals, has put together another four Buffalo production… of a two Buffalo show. And while the opening night crowd seemed pleased, I didn’t notice anybody dabbing their eyes…
Lead image: Photos are of the two leads, Steve Copps and Michele Marie Benzin. Photo Credit-Brian Milbrand.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!