A DUAL CRITICS REVIEW
Jacksonville Beach’s Players by the Sea opened its first production of 2019 with “The Bridges of Madison County” on January 25th, which runs through February 16th. The theatre is located at 106 6th Street North in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. For reservations call 904-249-0289 or visit playersbythesea.org.
The musical is based on a novella of the same name by Robert James Waller, published in 1992. Many theatre-goers will be familiar with the story. The book was on the New York Times bestseller list for over three years, has sold over sixty million copies worldwide, and a 1995 film adaptation starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood grossed over a hundred and eighty million dollars.
The story is a love story; that of a brief romantic encounter between a married but lonely housewife and a free-wheeling photographer who spend a four-day weekend together in a farmhouse in Iowa. Both are middle-aged. The Italian-born Francesca came to Iowa as a war bride and lives a conventional life with her husband and two children, while Robert works for National Geographic, relishes the excitement he encounters during his assignments, and reportedly has no interest in close relationships with others.
The love story is back, but this time as a musical with nineteen songs. Marsha Norman, a Pulitzer Prize winner, wrote the book, and Jason Robert Brown wrote the music and lyrics. He is familiar to area audiences as he also wrote the music and lyrics for “The Last Five Years” and “Parade;” both have been hits here.
After Francesca’s husband (Eric Yarham) and her two energetic children Michael (John Flannagan) and Carolyn (Kaylee Hendry) leave for a week at the Iowa State Fair, she encounters Robert, who has been assigned to photograph Madison County’s famous covered bridges. And Francesca’s world turns upside down. During the couple’s brief romance, they sing several lovely songs that convey their feelings. The music ranges from light opera to blues and is quite beautiful and especially well sung.
Francesca is portrayed by local actress Erin Barnes who is well known in musical theatre venues, having played the leads in many well-known musicals. She frequently appears opposite her husband Matt in shows such as “The Addams Family” and “South Pacific” and has been the musical director/pianist in a number of productions. She is marvelous as Francesca.
Robert, her photographer lover, is masterfully played and sung by David Diehl in his debut not only with Players but the local theatre scene. A music graduate of Johns Hopkins University, he has also trained in Italy and Austria. You are going to love his excellent bass voice, like Barnes’ voice, is dazzling.
Francesca’s family and friends have their own lives and solos. Eric Yarham is perfectly cast as Bud, Francesca’s hard working farmer husband. Providing comic relief are Susan Roche (Marge) and her husband Charlie (Del Austin), next door neighbors who keep tabs on Francesca. Making a brief appearance is Robert’s first wife Marian (Lexi Inks) who sings the haunting “Another Life.” The ensemble includes Jodie Jernigan and Zoe Bell; both also appear as singers at the fair. Leanne Gullo, Alex Young, and Richie Rosado complete the ensemble.
Music Director Zeek Smith is on piano and leads the six-piece band tucked away backstage. The musicians handling this ambitious score are Jacob Schuman (Guitar), Damon Martin (Bass), Joseph Henderson (Violin), Andrew Simpson (Percussion) and Alexander Downs (Cello).
“Bridges” was co-directed by Lee Hamby and Suzanne Hudson-Smith.
The dynamic set that stretched end-to-end included a rustic ledge and flooring, and the outlines of a bridge, set off by colorful lighting.
Madison County is an interesting place to visit, especially in this musical re-creation (although we would not recommend it for children). The production is filled with some of the best voices we have ever heard on stage in this area.
Other Creative Team members included Jennifer O’Brien (Stage Manager, Marielle Erskine (Assistant Stage Manager& Light Board Operator), Chelsea Black (Deck Head), Jereme Raickett (Production Manager), Ian Black (Scenic Designer), Daniel Dungan (Lighting Designer), Amy Hancock (Costume Designer), Jermaine Rodrigquez (Sound Designer), Katie Dawson (Scenic Change Artist), Claire Cimino(Properties), and Baron Tetzlaff (Scenic Carpenter).