Trevor Nunn helms a moderately successful UK premiere of Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman’s 2013 Broadway musical
Robert James Waller’s 1992 novel was reincarnated in the Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep-starring film, and again in Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman’s 2013 musical – both adaptations wisely ditching some of the original’s sappiness. Now, Trevor Nunn helms a moderately successful UK premiere.
Italian war bride Francesca has raised two children with farmer Bud in Iowa. But when National Geographic photographer Robert comes to take pictures of the titular covered bridges, they embark on an affair.
The Menier is a perfect setting for this intensely intimate piece. Yet, oddly, Nunn fights the small space, packing it with furniture wheeled in on tracks or revolves, creaky sliding doors constantly revealing new set pieces, and distracting, unimaginative projections.
Brown’s exquisitely delicate, poetic score has a timeless quality; this production, however, is determined to be naturalistic. Yet when the staging is freer, the actors – and the work – shine, as in the standout duet “One Second and a Million Miles”.
Jenna Russell wryly conveys Francesca’s farm ambivalence, thanking “the patron saint of Iowa housewives” for Robert’s arrival, but also stirringly demonstrates her dawning realisation of an unfulfilled life. Edward Baker-Duly provides the requisite grizzled charm and challenging ideas (hippy-ish Robert is – gasp! – a vegetarian).
They feel like kind, sincere companions. But where’s the shattering, soul-bearing passion that awakens self-denying wife and mother Francesca’s long-dormant sensuality?
Both also struggle with Brown’s score, which requires an impressive range; songs plateau when they should soar. However, Gillian Kirkpatrick and Shanay Holmes do it full justice in their numbers, and Tom Murray’s orchestra comfortably handles the mix of stripped-back folk, rousing country and semi-operatic grandeur.
Dale Rapley, Maddison Bulleyment and David Perkins convince as Francesca’s family – their subplot occasionally paralleling her existential crisis, and hinting at 1960s social change.
The near-three-hour production needs a trim – that’s partly the staging, partly the work itself, which has a multi-ending epilogue rivalling the final Lord of the Rings film. A stronger romantic connection would help power it, but Brown’s score rewards endurance.