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Picturesque ‘Bridges’ needs more troubled waters

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Rob Richardson and Joan Hess play the lovers in the musical version of “The Bridges of Madison County” presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

Everything about “The Bridges of Madison County” at TheatreWorks in Mountain View is very attractive. The production is visually rich, with a handsome and talented cast, and a gently-rolling if not overly memorable score by Jason Robert Brown that nonetheless managed to catch the Tony Award in 2014.

What it lacks, absent cherished memories of the best-selling novel or its successful film adaptation, is passion.

The whole thing feels predestined, and not in that dramatic fighting-your-fate way. You just know everything that’s going to happen well before it happens. Here’s how they meet. Here’s how they cheat. This is what the brief bubble of happiness will look like. This is how they will end.

The “they” are Francesca, an Italian war bride trapped in an Iowa corn field, and Robert, an itinerant photographer who stops to ask for directions. Joan Hess and Rob Richardson in the roles are a sublimely talented pair of musical theater artists and their glorious voices and solid stage presence generate as much warmth and audience goodwill as the material allows.

Francesca escaped a broken heart in post-World War II Italy by marrying Bud, but now she wants to escape again, this time from what has become her dull life with a mostly distracted husband (played with hopeless defeatism by Timothy Gulan).

Against this discontent Hess radiates pragmatism, duty and a sincerely innate goodness. So much so that the ease with which she lies to her husband about Robert provides one of the evening’s few surprises in character development.

Robert’s back story is set up in the poignantly performed (by Courtney Stokes) but unnecessary song “Another Life” that freezes the action but does nothing to advance his character. Richardson reads as a stalwart, trustworthy, decent fellow but not necessarily someone for whom you would up-end your world.

The book by Marsha Norman compounds the problem by padding in every possible way to expand what should have been an intimate chamber musical into a “real-live Broadway” show. That includes arguing children, nosy neighbors, flashbacks, freeze-frames and a completely unnecessary hoe-down production number.

Nothing is badly executed. The production designs of Wilson Chin, Fumiko Bielefeldt and Pamila Z. Gray are sublimely evocative, dancing a successful pas de deux between detail and suggestion, and the performances by Maureen McVerry and Martin Rojas Dietrich as the neighbors are a bright spot.

Ultimately, though, it all distracts rather than distills. You are left with images rather than feelings, and for a romance that is the kiss of death.

REVIEW
The Bridges of Madison County
Presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Where: Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes April 29
Tickets: $40 to $100
Contact: (650) 463-1960, theatreworks.org

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