There’s an old saying about saving the best for last and Wagon Wheel Theatre proved this when it opened its production of “The Bridges of Madison County” Tuesday evening.
To conclude a season filled with large-scale musicals that brought audiences to their feet, direct/choreographer Scott Michaels chose this “Encore Show,” 2016 Tony Award-winning treasure, a small-scale musical (cast of 11) based on a book called “one of the best-selling books of the 20thcentury.”
If opinions about the slim volume by Robert James Waller are divided, adding music, as always, makes everything better.
Who doesn’t love a tale of love, temptation and ultimate sacrifice, especially when set to a Tony-winning score interpreted with passion and understanding by some of the best vocalists of this or any WW season.
Leading the outstanding company are WW’s own Kira Lace Hawkins as Italian war bride Francesca Johnson, and newcomer Taylor Okey as photographer Robert Kinkaid.
Her teenage dreams of seeing the world resulted in marriage with a soldier, Richard “Bud” Johnson (an excellent Scott Fuss), and a trip to his home in Winterset, Iowa where she settles into life as a farmer’s wife and raises their two children Michael (Ian Laudano) and Carolyn (Leah Greene).
The action swirls around one weekend when Bud, Michael and Carolyn are heading to the national fair in Indianapolis when Carolyn hopes her steer will take the grand prize.
Francesca stays home and, soon aftr they leave, meets Kinkaid, on assignment from the National Geographic to photograph the seven covered bridges in Madison County.
He is lost and looking for Roseman Bridge. She offers to take him there. Learning he had visited her hometown of Naples, she invites him in for a glass of tea. They talk easily, finding a natural connection.
One thing leads to another and they eventually find themselves in bed and wondering what it would be like to be together forever.
Their time together is interrupted periodically by neighbor Marge (Jennifer Dow). who is definitely suspicious, and her husband Charlie (M ichael Pacaholski), who is for leaving things alone.
When Bud and the children return, Francesca must make the decision of her life.
The music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown are brought to life by Hawkins and Okey as they slowly but surely find in each other what has been lacking in themselves. Each has a truly amazing voice which moves from introspection to revelation in wonderfully rich and solid melodies. Their tentative initial interaction and eventual complete surrender to feelings that finally cannot be denied are sensitively portrayed and beautifully sung.
Fuss manages to be at least somewhat sympathetic as the husband who really has no idea of his wife’s sacrifice and long-hidden expectations. He interacts recognizably with his teenage siblings who struggle with their own hopes and fears.
Another standout voice is that of Elaine Cotter who plays the roles of Kinkaid’s ex-wife and a singer at the state fair. Actually she sings her characters but they are beautifully portrayed.
Dow’s “nosey neighbor” is more good-hearted than malicious and luckily her husband is a “live and let live” moderator.
Chandler A. Ford makes a brief but memorable appearance as Francesca’s sister Chiara.
Major plusses of this production are Patrick Chan’s sensitive lighting design which allows all things important, large or small, to be in exactly the right amount — and shade — of light, and Michael Higgins’ multi-flex set which is changed quickly, quietly and frequently by members of the ensemble. They also transport set pieces and props up and down the aisles with a really minimal amount of movement.
The eight-member orchestra under conductor/keyboardist Thomas A. Sterling features some fluidly gorgeous work by the strings.
All of these aspects come together under Michaels’ sensitive eye to form a production that would hold its own anywhere.
It is a unique experience in musical theater and should be taken advantage of during its too-brief stay here.
“THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY” plays through Sunday in the theater at 2517 E. Center Street in Warsaw. For performance times and reservations, call (574)267-8041.