The Bridges of Madison County began life as a best-selling 1992 romantic novella by Robert James Waller, then found new fans through Clint Eastwood’s 1995 movie in which he starred opposite Meryl Streep.

The musical, featuring music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown and a book by Marsha Norman, had a three-month Broadway season in 2014, winning a Tony Award for Best Original Score after it closed. Now comes the Australian premiere of the musical, directed and co-produced by Neil Gooding at the Hayes Theatre Co.

Ian Stenlake and Kate Maree Hoolihan. Photography © Grant Leslie Photography

Set in Iowa, most of the musical takes place over four intense days in 1965. It then leap frogs across a few key events in the years that follow, in sketchy fashion, as it builds to the big, emotional ending. Italian-born Francesca (Kate Maree Hoolihan) met her American husband Bud (Anton Berezin) in Naples during the war and now lives a reasonably happy but uneventful life on their farm with their two teenage children Carolyn (Zoe Ioannou) and Michael (Grady Swithenbank). Bud is decent but dull, and their children are always arguing.

When Bud takes the kids to a state fair so that Carolyn can show her prize steer Stevie in the Steer of the Year contest, Francesca decides to stay home for a few quiet days. Then a blue pick-up truck pulls into her driveway. Robert Kincaid (Ian Stenlake), a photographer for National Geographic, is photographing all the covered bridges of Madison County and can’t find the Roseman Bridge. He asks for directions. Francesca instantly feels drawn to him and says she’ll show him the way.

When he drops her home, she nervously offers him tea then persuades him to stay for dinner, and a passionate affair, like nothing either of them has ever experienced before, ignites. For four heady days they live in romantic bliss, then Francesca’s family arrives home and she must decide whether to embrace passion and leave with Robert, or stay with her family who she loves.

The musical has a slow start with a number called To Build a Home, in which Francesca traces her journey from Naples to her life in Iowa. It captures the simple life she now leads in middle America, but the song feels long and doesn’t do much to hook you into the show.

The score for The Bridges of Madison County does include some lovely songs, replete with emotional yearning, but despite the attractive melodies – which often have a folk music/bluesy feel – it’s an appealing score rather than one that truly reaches into your heart. And because there are so many lush, romantic ballads, with sweeping strings, the tone feels similar for much of the show.

The lyrics and dialogue are convincing and ring true – even though Robert openly voices his feelings for Francesca in a way that would have most men, Australians anyway, cringing.

Beth Daly, Kate Maree Hoolihan and Zoe Ioannou. Photograph © Grant Leslie Photography

Neil Gooding has cast the show well, and directs a fluent production on a versatile set designed by James Browne, which features sets of panels with wooden slats on one side and scenic elements on the other, which are turned around to create the farmstead kitchen and bedroom, the Roseman Bridge and the state fair. Anna Gardiner’s costuming is mostly spot on, though Robert doesn’t look much like the “hippie” he is regularly called.

Kate Maree Hoolihan is utterly charming as Francesca, capturing her shyness and initial embarrassment, and then the gradual flowering of long dormant emotions and sexuality.

There’s a wonderful scene in which Robert asks to photograph her at the bridge and we watch her, in the space of less than a minute, gradually shift from an awkward, uptight pose to a relaxed, truthful expression in which she opens up her soul as she stares into the lens. Hoolihan also sings with grace and heart, palpably conveying the passion in Brown’s swooning ballads.

Ian Stenlake is a good match as the free-spirited Robert, and the chemistry between them zings. He also sings extremely well, doing justice to Brown’s emotive score.

The musical depicts various other characters whose lives connect with the central characters, but at times it gives us more than we need in this respect. Seeing Francesca’s family certainly helps build the drama so that we understand the emotional stakes when she must decide whether she can bring herself to leave them. The fact that her son is unhappy and rebellious, and that his father doesn’t understand him while she does, is part of that. But it still feels as if too much time is spent with them at the fair.  The songs by Bud and Robert’s first wife (Katie McKee) also feel extraneous, detracting from the drive of the central plot.

Michael Beckley and Beth Daly. Photograph © Grant Leslie Photography

Among a strong cast, Beth Daly and Michael Beckley are very funny as Francesca and Bud’s neighbours Marge and Charlie, injecting some welcome humour to the piece. While you could argue that we also see more of them than necessary, Daly’s song Get Closer (a 50s-style pop number reminiscent of Patsy Cline) is a nice change of pace musically, and the deadpan way Beckley delivers Charlie’s dry humour is delicious.

At its heart, The Bridges of Madison County is a tender, touching musical but there is too much flab around the central story, slowing down the storytelling. With much of the music similar in tone, it is an appealing show rather than a dazzling one. But Gooding’s production is extremely well performed, and worth a visit.

The Bridges of Madison County plays at the Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney until April 5


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