Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
Also see Bill's review of Synergy
Hearing the Broadway cast album, I felt something for Francesca and Robert for the first time. Jason Robert Brown's music elevates the emotional arc to an almost operatic level. Unfortunately, the adaptation is very uneven: Whenever the two leading characters are front and center, the musical is at its best; whenever the townsfolk are around, mostly to open up the story, things go awry. The problem is a serious one, enough to dull the impact of some gorgeous writing, perhaps the finest thing Brown has ever produced. It might work well as a song cycle of the material for Robert and Francesca.
Manatee Players offers a production that is almost as vividly sung as was the Broadway version, which was headed by Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale. Dianne Dawson is simply magnificent as Francesca. I have noticed that some of our finest community theater actors are incredibly versatile, playing roles that their Broadway counterparts wouldn't dare. Last year in this same slot, Ms. Dawson trotted the boards with an awesome Florence in Chess, the year before she played The Baker's Wife in Into the Woods. I have previously seen her as Marion Paroo in The Music Man, Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, and Dot in Sunday in the Park with George as well as other roles opposite her equally talented husband, Steve. I defy the extremely gifted Kelli O'Hara to take a whack at Mrs. Lovett or Florence.
Charles Dugan is making his Manatee Players debut, although he is widely known as a performer in the Tampa area. He is a tenor, maybe not an operatic tenor, but clearly a tenor, in a part conceived for a baritone. Unless my ears deceived me, they transposed a couple of his solo numbers up to accommodate the beauty of his high range. I prefer the slightly more masculine sound of a baritone, but with singing this glorious no one should quibble. He is quite the hunk, making it totally believable that Francesca could fall for him. Music direction is by Thomas D. Guthrie who gives these two, and the rest of the cast, superb support from the pit.
Cory Woomert turns in another in a series of fine performances, this time as Francesca's husband Bud. Although written for the considerable talents of Hunter Foster, the role is uninteresting, and I can't imagine anyone really scoring with it. Griffyn Holcomb and Catherine Austin are Francesca and Bud's children, David Addis and Victoria Gross are neighbors Charlie and Marge, Michelle Anaya plays three different roles, but all these fine performers are up against material that falls flat. Carla Austin, Brian Craft, Brenna Griffith, Bradley Keville, Cody Longhitano, Michelle Northcraft and Lindsay Yarbrough are the hardworking ensemble.
Kathy Pingel, director, along with choreographer Vanessa Russo, and aided by the technical talents of Donna Buckalter (scenic design), Ryan E. Finzelber (lighting design) and Becky Evans (costume design) has put together a production that is as fluid as could be. Sound design by Tom Sell is perfect, I was able to understand almost every word, not always the case in this theater which has sonic gremlins lurking about.
I am thrilled that Manatee Players has brought The Bridges of Madison County to this area in such a superb production. This is some of the finest work I have seen on a community theater stage in a very long time. If the whole of The Bridges of Madison County were stronger, I believe this would be the non-professional production of the year that everyone would remember. I think that lovers of musical theater are going to want to see this production.
Manatee Players presents The Bridges of Madison County at Manatee Center for the Performing Arts through February 26, 2017, at 502 3rd Ave W., Bradenton; 941-748-0111, manateeplayers.com.
Conductor/Keyboard: Thomas D. Guthrie
Directed by Kathy Pingel