It’s all in Jennifer Baldwin Peden’s expressive voice.
As Francesca, an Italian émigré stuck in the flat, humdrum routine of an Iowa farm wife, the charismatic singer takes us into her character’s longing, wanderlust and conflicted joy in the musical “The Bridges of Madison County.”
Who cares if her Italian accent waxes and wanes in the show, which opened over the weekend at Artistry in Bloomington? Who cares that the sentimental story is overstuffed and emotionally manipulative?
From “To Build a Home” to “Almost Real” through “Before and After You/A Million Miles,” Francesca’s soaring duet with her cowboy photographer lover, Peden beckons with winged voice, and we, totally charmed, follow.
Nor is she alone in director Ben McGovern’s lush production. Peden acts opposite Eric Morris, who plays National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid. They have strong chemistry, are vocally complementary and are credible as the answers to their lusty characters’ desires.
First a schmaltzy 1992 bestseller by Robert James Waller, then a 1995 film starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, “Bridges” became a short-lived Broadway musical in 2014 after composer Jason Robert Brown (“The Last Five Years”) teamed up with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman (“ ’night Mother”).
The narrative is something the Hollywood Reporter dubbed “a watered-down ‘Anna Karenina’ in the lonely American Midwest.” Dreaming of adventure and a life beyond war, Francesca met and married American GI Bud Johnson (Charlie Clark) 18 years ago. He took her from Naples to Winterset, Iowa, where they are raising teenagers Carolyn (Alyson Enderle) and Michael (Ryan London Levin).
But Francesca left part of her soul in her homeland, and when Robert knocks on her door seeking directions, he seems like the answer to what she’s missing. Francesca invites him in for tea, and much more.
A fantasia, “Bridges” has elements of “Our Town,” also done recently at Artistry. Unlike on Broadway, the townspeople are not a constant presence onstage in “Bridges,” one of at least two Iowa-set musicals onstage in the Twin Cities — “The Music Man” goes into previews shortly at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. The action takes place on Rick Polenek’s mostly spare set that’s given some purple and blue hues by lighting designer Michael P. Kittel. Brown’s twangy score is played with sweetness and emotion by Anita Ruth’s 10-piece orchestra.
While Peden and Morris, both making their debut at Artistry, are giving star-quality performances, there are also nice moments from Clark’s Bud, a good, salt-of-the earth guy, and Wendy Short-Hays as nosy neighbor Marge. The kids, played by Enderle and Levin, seem a bit overgrown even though they have small comic moments. And Becca Hart, who plays three roles, evokes Joni Mitchell as Kincaid’s wispy ex-wife.
Artistry has upped its game in recent years, bringing higher-caliber shows to the south suburbs. “Bridges” points to its lofty ambitions.