If Chick Flick the Musical weren’t already an actual show, I’d coin the title to describe The Bridges of Madison County, through March 3 at Philadelphia Theatre Company. Alternatively, A Bridge Too Far might serve the sarcastic purpose. This lame musical by Jason Robert Brown (music and lyrics) with Marsha Norman (book) is an adaptation of a best-selling 1992 novel by Robert James Waller. In between the novel and this musical came the movie starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood.
The story begins on an Iowa farm, where Francesca (Sarah Gliko) lives with her husband, Bud (Scott Guthrie), and their quarreling teenage children, Michael (Kevin John Murray) and Carolyn (Georgiana Summers, who is excellent). They are off to the State Fair to show their prize steer, leaving Francesca with a few rare days to herself. But not for long. …
Along comes Robert (Gregg Goodbrod), a National Geographic photographer trying to find the last of Madison County’s covered bridges. Francesca shows him the way, offers iced tea, and before you know it they have fallen passionately, lustily in love. Providing an envious/judgmental context for this affair is snoopy neighbor Marge (Barbara McCulloh, who is the most extreme example of cliché as she wears a dust cap and sings while sweeping her floor) and her husband, Charlie (Greg Wood, the most convincing of the cast, with the one song that has a different rhythm and a different vocabulary). Once they get to the State Fair, we watch the hoedown entertainment (Rachel Camp, in the most ludicrous of the Dolly Parton caricatures).
Director Mark Martino has left no cliché unturned: You always know what a character is going to do before they do it, and then they do it. Example: a darkened stage, a spot-lit couple; she turns to him, arm outstretched, and, grasping his hand, leads him to the bedroom, singing, “Come with me” over and over. Once they admit “this is destiny,” the backdrop is suddenly lit by stars.
This language of cliché is present in every song, where musically a phrase repeats and repeats as the lyrics echo themselves. Almost all the songs are sung to us, the audience, so no one ever seems to talk to another person on stage. Often the music is oddly jazzy and oddly loud as the actors try to sing over it.
The show is like a romance novel enacted, playing to the disappointment of every married woman in the audience. As Francesca tells Robert, “I felt like a boring housewife, but now I feel like myself again.” Eighteen years ago she met Bud, an American soldier stationed in Naples, and Gliko gives Francesca’s voice and gesture a plausible suggestion of an Italian accent.
There is something condescending about The Bridges of Madison County. You feel the smugness of sophisticated artists writing about country bumpkins (Waitress is another case in point), and you want to defend the characters against the show that’s belittling them. The last song reassures us that the nuclear family is safe — “Love is always better,” they all sing in unison — and we are sent on our way, comforted that the social fabric will hold.