Encore Michigan

Farmers Alley’s ‘Bridges of Madison County’ is truly a family affair

Review June 10, 2018 Julie Linderleaf

KALAMAZOO, MICH.–An actor’s job is successfully accomplished when the audience can too feel the vast flood of emotions he displays through his character. Farmer’s Alley Theatre’s musical production of The Bridges of Madison County, which features real-life spouses in the leading roles, more than pulls this feat off  in the Little Theatre at Western Michigan University June 8-24.

The Bridges of Madison County is based from the original best-selling novel by Robert James Waller in 1992 then adapted into a critically acclaimed movie starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep in 1995. In 2013, Jason Robert Brown adapted the music and lyrics while Marsha Norman wrote the book. This extremely popular and deeply conflictingly story showcases an Italian woman’s internal struggle between following a new soul connection love affair and staying in her simple family country life. Denene Mulay Koch plays Francesca Johnson, who hastily married an American soldier after the war and took her to a faraway country and family life in Iowa in the 1960’s. While her husband and two children are two states away at a county fair, she finds a deep romantic connection to Robert Kincaid, (played by Jeremy Koch) a virile, nomadic photographer for National Geographic.

The chemistry is evident between this pair who are, of course, married in their off-stage life. These actors’ voices blend so perfectly together, Denene with her slight Italian accent and Jeremy’s during their duets, especially during “Falling into you.” The Johnson children in the cast, Michael played by Jason Koch and Carolyn played by Carly Koch, are their children. One can just imagine the musical fun this family must have in their home. Ironically this show about potentially pulling a family apart was directed by Denene’s own mother, Kathy Mulay, putting three generations of the Mulay family in this cast.

The set throughout the show, is a more than subtle reminder that even though the show is a romantic story, it is still about adultery in the end. A telephone pole with a payphone attached breaks the skyline in the dead center of the upper stage. It seems out of place at first glance of the set: A small cutout of the homestead kitchen, a multi-leveled area in the center with pull-outs and add in set pieces, and a small extra area to stage right. But then the payphone becomes the elephant in the room: Every time the husband or the children walk to the phone, audience members can feel their stomachs drop, knowing they are only calling because they miss their wife and/or mother, yet she is romanticizing this strange man in their house and seriously contemplating running away with Robert. The song “Once second and a million miles” strives to make sense of their future entwined.

The songs strive to display these emotional connections and help send the audience members reeling on a rollercoaster of emotions: Should Francesca and Robert explore their feelings and break her bonds of family and marriage through the song, “Wondering.” When she finally makes her decision and the show tastefully shows the passing of time through the song, “When I’m gone,” Audience members tear up as some cast members pass on into the big “Cornfield.”

Two members of the Actor’s Equity Association bring a comedic twist to this production of whirlwind emotions. Zoe Vonder Haar and Kenneth Derby play the elderly and nosey neighbors, Marge and Charlie. Every time these two graced the stage with their presence, humor ensued. Haar pretends to be a famous radio performance star and dramatically belts the song, “Get Closer,” attempting to add humor the deep conflicting feelings of adultery that is happening on the other side of the stage.

Is cheating okay if you married the wrong person? Is cheating okay if you meet your soul-mate? This production leaves the audience to decide the answers to these questions. Audience members must delve into their own emotions and thoughts of these questions. This cast makes it easy to connect to these emotions and find the answers. Take a chance and see this amazing cast and connect emotionally too.

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Week of 12/10/2018

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