Authors: Marsha Norman and Jason Robert Brown
At: Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre, 721 Howard St., Evanston. Tickets: www.theo-u.com or 773-347-1109; $39-69. Runs through: April 21
Theo Ubique, director Fred Anzevino and music director Jeremy Ramey have crafted a stunning production of The Bridges of Madison County. Their workalong with a fantastic cast, orchestra and setdistracts from gnawing questions about how well the musical form actually suits this quiet story. It may not be perfect, but look up; the space itself is under the roof of a covered bridge, looking out on green hills. That's plenty poignant.
It's 1965, and Francesca ( Kelli Harrington ) is nearing middle age, stuck in a tepid marriage, and she's far from her home in Italydeep in U.S. corn country. When her husband, Bud ( Carl Herzog ), and kids, Caroline ( Peyton Shaffer ) and Michael ( Christopher Ratliff ), take off for the county fair, she's left alone.
Then, the sort-of visitor she's always dreamed of knocks on her door: handsome and lonely photographer Robert ( Tommy Thurston ), looking for a missing covered bridge to complete his National Geographic photo spread. The two get entangled in a love affair wild and sprawling enough for neighbors Marge ( Kate Harris ) and Charlie ( Randolph Johnson ) to notice. But there is no way for them to pursue this love without leaving a trail of broken hearts in their wake.
Authors Marsha Norman and Jason Robert Brown have devised something that feels like a musical teeter-totter. It elevates you with ensemble numbers like "When I'm Gone," which encapsulates years in a blink; and soliloquy songs like "Another Life" or "Something from a Dream," which allow us behind the curtains on cagier characters.
But this teeter-totter sinks exactly when you want to keep soaring. Songs reveal so much of Francesca and Robert's inner workings, and force them to spend so much time not talking to one another, you long for the book to pick back up. I don't think theater etiquette would allow for audience calls to "stop singing and kiss, already."
Kate Harris ( as Marge ) and Randolph Johnson ( as Charlie ) are sweet and grounding in an untethered world. As stand-ins for the whole community, they are armed with food and supportive songs. Carl Herzog plays Bud with optimism that is drained and replaced with worry and contempt, threatening to overflow at any moment. As Robert, Tommy Thurston brings solid vocals to a character that can be hard to pin down. Robert is aloof in dialog, an oversharer in song, but outside of his love of Francesca, he is sketched very faintly. As Francesca, however, Kelli Harrington lays it all on the table. Her incredible voice makes a string of intricate arias seem effortless. It may not take home the blue ribbon, but you might warm to this story.