December 5, 2015
"The Bridges of Madison County" is a popular 1992 novel by Robert James Waller, selling more than 50 million copies worldwide. In 1995, a film version was made starring Hollywood royalty, Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, in the lead roles. In 2013, a musical play was crafted with book by Marsha Norman (who also wrote "The Secret Garden") and music and lyrics by Joseph Robert Brown (who did "The Last Five Years"). Not really too fond of this genre, I was initially not inclined to brave the ever-worsening Makati traffic to go watch it. However, the rave reviews this show got from its first week made it difficult to resist.
From war torn Naples, Italy, young Francesca met American soldier Bud Johnson and decided to go back to the US with him to get married. 18 years and two teenage children later, 1965, Francesca lived a simple farmer's life in remote Winterset, Iowa. One weekend, while the rest of her family was out to the State Fair in the big city for four days, Francesca met a "hippie" National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid who asked her directions to a certain Roseman Bridge which he needed to take pictures of. Feeling an irresistible attraction borne out of her loneliness, Francesca fell deeply in love with Robert and gave in to her passionate desires.
This is a story that would evoke different reactions from men and women. Women see this story as wish-fulfillment for a strong handsome man to sweep them off their feet and rescue them from their humdrum existence. For men though, this is a horror story of what may happen behind their backs if they, as husbands, were not sensitive to their wives' hidden frustrations about their lives. The success of the book and the movie are already proof of the story's connection with its audience. The creation of this musical thirty years after the book came out was further proof of its timeless appeal, mainly for women.
I have long-heard of Joanna Ampil and her singing and acting talents already recognized in the West End in London. However, this is the very first time I was seeing her perform. I was blown away from the very first note that came out from her as she opened the show with her first song "To Build a Home." Her singing was, in a word, glorious. I did not immediately catch that she was Italian as the accent was very subtle, but I did not mind. Ampil was able to fully evoke the loneliness and unhappiness of her character so well that we reluctantly "understand" what she did. This whole show is Ampil's showcase and she carried it with full heart and soul. Francesca Johnson will be her signature role as far as the annals of Philippine theater history is concerned.
Migs Ayesa we first knew from his stint as contestant in the TV search for the new lead singer of INXS. We are fully aware of his soaring rock vocals which he already showed local audiences as the crazy rock star Stacee Jaxx in the Atlantis production of "Rock of Ages." His Robert Kincaid was the ideal paperback romantic hero, a shy silent loner with his sculpted torso who sings well too, the stuff of an insecure husband's nightmares. Ayesa impressibly nailed all his punishing notes down, although his singing voice may tend to be nasal in the higher registers. He also had several effectively quiet moments singing serious sentiments in acapella in songs like "It All Fades Away", which were likewise impressive.
I do not know if this was Nino Alejandro's first major theater production, but he certainly played the role of the cuckolded husband Bud with restraint expected from his inarticulate character, with his open face wordlessly clear of his gradual realizations. His numerous phone call scenes could have been so simple mundane, but with them, Alejandro was able to make us feel his growing anxieties. His featured song “Something from a Dream” was poignantly expressive of his love for his wife.
Neighbors and close friends Charlie (Jamie Wilson) and Marge (Emeline Celis-Guinid) somehow put two and two together when they saw Kincaid's truck parked outside the Johnson farm overnight. These two were a delightfully nosy couple yet they knew their place. Celis-Guinid surprised us with her sultry rendition of a radio love song “Get Closer” in total contrast with the shrill voice of Marge. Wilson can play any character with empathy and homespun charm. He also gets to sing a moving song "When I'm Gone" with Alejandro.
The goings-on of the two Johnson kids, Michael and his rebellious phase (played by Bibo Reyes) and Carolyn and her prize steer (played by MIkkie Bradshaw) were obviously just thrown in to prolong the story, but those petty squabbles between these two tended to make the storytelling a bit messy. There was an additional character, Robert’s ex-wife, Marian, that was not entirely necessary. However, the beautiful Carla Guevara-Laforteza made magic with her one featured song "Another Life”, with guitar playing to boot!
When you first enter the theater, you see a bare stage with a wooden floor and three walls of framed photographs surrounding it. During the course of the play, the company ensemble (Steven Conde, Nel Gomez, Franz Imperial, Yanah Laurel, Abi Sulit and Teetin Villanueva) will be revealing surprises from behind these frames. The props were so simple yet so effective in delineating space and even perspective. You should see how those step ladders become doorways, the refrigerator or Roseman bridge itself. I even like the sink and counter with the realistic carrots. This innovative set design was courtesy of Faust Peneyra.
The songs in this musical were a curious mix of show tunes tinged with Country and Gospel flavors in keeping with its setting in the American heartland. The love songs were quite Pop in style, laced with R&B and Rock. Musical director Ceejay Javier led his orchestra through these various styles. Joseph Robert Brown's style of flight-of-ideas songwriting (which we heard in "The Last Five Years" with mixed results) is clearly dependent on the singer's talents to breathe life and emotion into them. As usual, the Filipino performers rise up to the challenge successfully. Kudos to director Bobby Garcia for another triumphant production!
"The Bridges of Madison County" opened last November 20, 2015 and will be winding up their run on December 6, with two shows at 3 pm and 8 pm. Venue will be at the Carlos P. Romulo Theater at the RCBC Plaza, Makati City. Ticket prices from P3000 to P900. Check out Ticketworld.com to buy your tickets.
To get a feel of the music, below is a video of one of the best and most memorable songs from the show, the love duet "One Second and a Million Miles" rendered by the original Broadway stars, Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale: