Had Robert Kincaid used the more modern DLSR, he wouldn’t have had needed to ask Francesca Johnson for a bucket of ice for his film rolls; and had it not been really hot that afternoon when they first met, Francesca wouldn’t have had asked Robert to stay in the kitchen, for a while, to have an iced-tea.
Had it not been for these devices, Robert James Waller wouldn’t have had a story, and his two characters wouldn’t have had to decide between painful choices in the end. To initially sum up the plot, THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY begins with curious “what ifs” and ends with painful “what could have beens.”
When Clint Eastwood announced, in the early 90s, that he had bought the rights to Waller’s novel, fans of the book raised their eyebrows. Nothing would beat the current social imagination among its readers, and we can’t blame them. More eyebrows were raised when Eastwood announced that he’ll be playing the erogenous Robert Kincaid, along side Meryl Streep as the humdrum Francesca Johnson. But in 1995, upon its international premiere, both Eastwood and Streep swept the audiences with their remarkable performances, praising Eastwood even more for his sensually silent direction.
In 2013, writer Marsha Norman and musical theater composer Jason Robert Brown premiered a musical stage adaptation of Waller’s modern classic. It eventually made its debut in Broadway in 2014, and won two Tony Awards for Best Orchestration and Original Score.
Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group (ATEG)’s staging of this musical adaptation delivers a remarkable retelling of Robert and Francesca’s story. For the first time, the Filipino audiences in Manila experience a first hand trip down the Roseman Bridge to share a “secret that almost lasted for a lifetime.”
Director Bobby Garcia scores quite a truthful presentation of 60s Iowa through Faust Peneyra‘s dimensional design. At first sight what you see is a big stage area covered by three walls. These walls are filled with tainted frames convening a set of countless monochromatic photos to establish an external Iowan cornfield at sunrise (or sunset). On top of this enormous space hang lightbulbs — too many to be counted — offering a constellation of muted radiance. The biggest frame borders the four sides of the platform to give an audience a lofty glance at a larger view that is the stage.
According to Peneyra, “the scenic design is a gallery composed of rustic frames anchored by one central image – that of a tree. These fragments of memories are pieced together in space and somewhat floating- in Francesca’s eyes, a moment in the past; and in Robert’s, a life that could have been. Creating a world inside a frame, a dream and reality, underneath a myriad of stars.”
It is nostalgic, visually poignant and ultimately close to home. Atlantis Production has brought us to Francesca Johnson and Robert Kincaid’s dreamy Iowa.
I can’t think of anyone else who could par with Eastwood’s rugged masculinity on stage other than Mig Ayesa. Yes, he’s the perfect choice. Ayesa manages to pull off Robert’s whispering passion, most especially during his initial scenes with Francesca. However, here, Ayesa offers a more candid Robert. He is palpably kind, obviously gentle and undeniably in love. I can’t blame him. The vastness of the RCBC stage requires a leading man to be head over heels, yet still maintain a mystery. On the other hand, Ayesa could be quite self-absorbed in some of his numbers, rambling rockingly in refrains, consequently disconnecting himself from Francesca and from the scene.
The last time I saw Joanna Ampil was in CHUVA CHOO CHOO, and I can say that in BRIDGES, Ampil’s talent doesn’t go to waste. I understand how challenging it could be for someone who takes on a role done so impeccably by someone like Streep. One can’t help not to compare – PERIOD. But Ampil manages to bring to the stage another take on this central character. Her Francesca is more confident, self-reliant, and mildly assertive. Unlike Streep’s bashful submissiveness and corn-fed nuances, Ampil is quite conventional – making Francesca stereotypically accessible. Despite this, she gives off a ravishing Francesca Johnson for the Manila stage. Ampil is easy and familiar as a common country mother that we know. During her notable numbers, Ampil belts with overwhelming confidence; and in her quite moments, she triumphs through her hidden sobs. Worthy to inquire on, however, is whatever happened to Francesca’s Italian accent. For the most part, this device adds to Francesca’s character and depth as it juxtaposes to Kincaid’s class and stature. Let me just leave this point hanging in here. There are so much more in Ampil here than Francesca’s accent, that you could easily forgive its absence.
Worthy to note are some of the supporting actors, like Jamie Wilson who plays to the uncomplicated amiable neighbour Charlie. Wilson, notable for his fatherly portrayals in other productions, brandishes this character with the same heartfelt sincerity, especially in the song “When I’m Gone.” Here, Wilson sings with sincere conviction, recounting the bitter reality of passage, of time and of moving on. You’d just want to go on stage in the middle of the song and hug him right there.
Emiline Celis-Guinid is Charlie’s lovable wife, and Francesca’s snoopy, yet doting friend Marge. Worthy to mention is Celis-Guinid’s soulful version of “Get Closer.” In it’s country-ness and soul, Celis-Guinid wonderfully renders an honest-to-goodness performance of a new, yet familiar and nostalgic tune. One can’t help not to smile and shift one’s focus on her from the building tension between Francesca and Robert’s dance. Celis-Guinid steals the scene, and it was a good steal indeed. See it for yourself.
My only reservation is this adaptation’s brand new take on Bud Johnson. See, in the original material, Bud represents the emotionally-absent husband to Francesca. One can’t help not to build a mild contempt on his character, that even in the movie, Bud’s persona somewhat justifies the secret liaisons that would come after. In the musical, Bud is carefree, touching, accessible and fatherly. This take on Bud magnifies Francesca’s offence, making her more unrighteously ungrateful, I’m not sure if this is done intentionally, or if Norman’s adaptation seeks to present feebler characterizations to establish newer perspectives.
I hope not.
Because Francesca needs more than just boredom and humdrum for a motivation to look for something better. With Bud’s absence and lack of attention, it would be easier to understand why the seeking Francesca saw hope when the stranger in the blue truck arrived at her driveway on the second day. Her character needs to have a certain degree of lack to justify her self-denied discontent the moment Robert opened his doors for her. This existing gap, juxtaposed with a glimpse of hope will give her one idea.
Because THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY is not just a love story. It is story about an idea. An idea about the promise of happiness and freedom; of forgotten dreams and wishful fantasies. In the novel, Waller explores the beauty of finding hope in sudden infatuations, and secret liaisons. Robert may have had fallen in love with Francesca, but Francesca still has to prove her own love for the man. See, she already has two children and a husband. But Robert’s sudden appearance in her life rekindled her forgotten dreams. In Robert, she saw the chance of escape, to marvel and to go on adventure once again. It is just safe to say that Francesca is starting to fall in love with the stranger on the “blue truck,” yes; but it is safer to admit there her unguarded glimpse at a brand new hope to happiness, and the idea of freedom and delivery from flat Iowa made Waller’s story progressively compelling.
This musical adaptation takes a big jump off from its material’s original thematic intents. Here, we see new dimensions, additional subplots and perspectives, and a shot on conventional characterizations. For a fan of both the book and the film, I can only put the blame on my fanatic self. But in spite all these, this re-telling of Waller’s novel still recalls the same themes on love and sacrifice. Even in its musicality, we still see Waller’s take on sensuality as it borders itself in the limits of virtue. Francesca and Robert’s story tells us that there are more important things in life than to be happy; because had Francesca and Robert pursued their passionate desire to be together, they would have had soon realized that they do not deserve such love.
So they did the right choice.
Painful, yes, but right.
Let’s hope that we can gather enough courage to do the same.
Featured photo courtesy of Mr. Faust Peneyra
Additional photos by Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group