Based on the best-selling novel by Robert James Waller, and first adapted into a popular Clint Eastwood/Meryl Streep movie, Aurora Theatre’s polished musical version of “The Bridges of Madison County” tells the emotional story of a love affair between two lost soul mates who find each other in the middle of nowhere, however briefly.
They meet in rural Iowa circa 1965. Francesca Johnson, who married an American GI and emigrated from her native Italy after World War II, is a middle-aged farm wife and mother of two teens, quietly frustrated and disappointed by her life. Robert Kincaid is a worldly loner and so-called “hippie,” a roving National Geographic photographer assigned to shoot several historic covered bridges in the area. With her husband and kids away for a few days, the couple tentatively embarks on a passionate romance that isn’t destined for a happy ending.
Featuring music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown (“Parade,” “The Last Five Years”), the challenging score is performed quite impressively by Aurora’s eight-piece band, under the musical direction of Ann-Carol Pence (on keyboards).
In the alternately lilting and commanding singing voices of co-stars Kristin Markiton and Travis Smith, there’s no shortage of memorable tunes in the show: her solos “What Do You Call a Man Like That?” and “Almost Real”; his solos “Wondering” and “It All Fades Away”; their duets “Falling Into You,” “Who We Are and Who We Want to Be,” and “Before or After/One Second and a Million Miles.”
But whole other routines feel slightly misguided or irrelevant. At least one of them, “Another Life,” is beautifully rendered nonetheless by Rhyn McLemore Saver (in a flashback as Robert’s ex-wife). It’s no reflection on the capable talents of Matt Lewis (as Francesca’s husband) to question his character’s need for four songs — and even Hannah Church and Benjamin Davis (as their children) get to lead a big, hokey crowd number of their own.
There’s a similarly disjointed quality about the script (by Pulitzer Prize-winning “’night, Mother” playwright Marsha Norman), replete with a comic-relief subplot involving Rob Cleveland and Valerie Payton (as the family’s friendly neighbors).
Staged by Aurora associate artistic director Justin Anderson with minimal attention to period detail or bucolic atmosphere, the production registers most effectively when sticking to the point, the relationship between Francesca and Robert.
Acting-wise, Markiton and Smith both deliver strong performances. That’s hardly surprising and almost to be expected in Smith’s case, after his recent triumphs in “Memphis” and “Big Fish.” It’s more remarkable in the case of the less familiar Markiton, last seen a few years ago in the supporting cast of Aurora’s “Into the Woods.”
In much the same way that their romance is frequently interrupted by phone calls from her husband, kids or neighbors, this musical version of the story essentially spoils the mood with too many extraneous distractions. The show is entertaining and solidly executed through it all, but it only truly comes to life and resonates in its more intimate matters of the heart and soul.
“The Bridges of Madison County”
Through April 16. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; 10 a.m. Wednesday (March 29 and April 12 only). $20-$65. Aurora Theatre, 128 E. Pike St., Lawrenceville. 678-226-6222, www.auroratheatre.com.
Bottom line: Musically sound, narratively faulty.