Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Theatre Review - "The Bridges of Madison County" at Theo Ubique

Spoilers for The Bridges of Madison County after the jump:

Sunday evening's production of The Bridges of Madison County at Theo Ubique began with a just a slight twinge of disappointment, brought on by an opening announcement that Kelli Harrington, the production's lead actress, would not be performing tonight. Such is of course the nature of live theatre—I see far less of it than I'd like to, but I've still seen enough to run across the occasional day where, due to illness or some other factor, a performer I was looking forward to seeing had to miss the show. It happens, and it's obviously nothing to actually complain about. Still, I won't pretend Harrington as Francesca wasn't one of the biggest reasons I wanted to catch this staging of a show I'd already seen not too long ago. I was floored by her turn as Margaret in The Light in the Piazza a few years ago and was looking forward to seeing her take on another of modern musical theatre's finest and most demanding lead roles.

I will not say Lizzie Cutrupi, who stepped into the role that evening, is Harrington's equal, because obviously I do not know. But I was compelled to write this because, well, Chicago's major theatre critics have already filed their opinions of the show with Harrington. I can't imagine any of them were here again on this random day to catch a performance that just so happened to feature an understudy taking on this part. And Cutrupi deserves to have something written about her work here, because she is just flat-out terrific in a role that (once again) is phenomenally challenging. Between the dazzling, sweeping arias Jason Robert Brown has written, the fact that the character is onstage for 90 percent of the action, and the complexity of the emotional arc, it's an absolute beast of a part, and she makes it her own from the opening bars of "To Build a Home" onward. By the time that song ended, my brief disappointment was all but forgotten, and I simply waited to see what—if any—new shades she and Theo Ubique could bring out in a work that, back when I first saw it at the Marriott in Lincolnshire, I found beautiful but slightly flawed in the passages not devoted to the central love story.

I mean don't get me wrong, the central love story is the most critical piece of the show, and that hasn't changed here. And as terrific as Cutrupi is, Marriott's version had an all-time great lead in Kathy Voytko who performed that score about as well as anyone possibly could. I also preferred that production's Robert (Nathaniel Stampley singing the role every bit as potently as Steven Pasquale on the cast recording), though Tommy Thurston offers an effectively reserved take on the character that's compelling in its own way. Still, if I intend to compare Theo Ubique's Bridges favorably to the Marriott's—and I do, though it's very close—it's not because its two leads improve upon the near-unimprovable. No, it's because the edges of the narrative have been sharpened in small ways that enhance the fateful decision Francesca must make between her great love and the family (and community) she's made in Iowa. In Lincolnshire the first of those things shone brightly, and the show worked. In Theo Ubique's take, they both do, and the difference is night and day, even if the singing may be just a tad weaker here.

I'm still not sure exactly why that is, to be honest. One could say there's a certain earthiness to these performances that's different, and that the quirks of the supporting characters feel more organic as a result. But I may simply chalk most of it up to the Theo Ubique magic—the way their stagings almost always seem to find some new dramatic alchemy in the confines of their tiny space. This is my first time visiting their new house, and while it's slightly larger, the intimacy that made shows like Piazza and A New Brain so enthralling has been retained completely. "You're Never Alone" (for all its loveliness as a tune) has always felt slightly cheesy to me, but here the ensemble makes it into an earnest, moving exploration of Francesca's family and neighbors. The best illustration of the production's strengths in this regard, though, is in second act number "When I'm Gone," another song I've always found slightly weaker than the many ravishing love solos and duets. Here it's delivered as a rousing, haunting powerhouse—a true ode to Bud's and Charlie's own love for their families. And that's what Bridges is really about, after all—the different forms love can take, and the struggles that result from trying to (in the words of Francesca) "place one love above another."

That line comes from "Always Better," a soaring closing number that, as performed by Cutrupi, becomes something even more than the exquisite tear-jerker it is on a textual level. It's infused with the wistfulness of a life not lived (with Robert) but also joy at the one that was—a thematic summation of everything else this production has built toward, written on one human face and heard from a single voice. (No pressure on any actress singing it, of course.) And it's all there: the yearning, the memories, the resolve, and so much more, as she seems to be in a sort of dialogue with every other scene leading up to this point. I could quibble with aspects of the performance here and there if I wanted to, but when you've nailed that ending and so much else . . . who cares? Fred Anzevino and the rest of Theo Ubique's creative team deserve so much credit for unlocking the full picture of this work, but it all falls apart without a lead ready to anchor the story both emotionally and vocally. Cutrupi was. Kudos to her. 

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