Some have labeled Robert James Waller’s 1992 novel “The Bridges of Madison County” oversentimental. But it inspired a well-received film three years later in which Clint Eastwood, who also directed, demonstrated his romantic chops and for which Meryl Streep garnered yet another Oscar nomination.
Nearly 20 years later, a show by the same name opened on Broadway – with a book by Marsha Norman and music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown.
Despite numerous nominations and some awards, as well as star power – including Kelli O’Hara as the female lead and director Bartlett Sher – the musical lasted only weeks on Broadway.
Now, “The Bridges of Madison County” is coming to Kensington Arts Theatre, the first community theater in the area to present it, said the show’s director Craig Pettinati.
The short tenure of the show on the Great White Way doesn’t surprise him.
“That’s often the case with ‘artistic’ plays,” Pettinati said. “Stephen Sondheim musicals don’t stay long, whereas some shows, like ‘Hamilton,’ ‘Wicked,’ and ‘Chicago’ go on forever. They have sex appeal. But I love the book and the story of ‘The Bridges of Madison County.’”
Like the novel and film, the musical centers on Francesca, an Italian war bride leading a vaguely unhappy life on an Iowa farm. While her husband and children are out of town at the State Fair, Francesca meets a National Geographic photographer who has come to take pictures of the county’s famous covered bridges.
Unexpectedly, the two fall in love and have a brief extramarital affair. Although she decides to stay with her family, Francesca and Robert’s feelings for each other endure – and change their lives.
Stuart Weich, who provides the music direction for the show, came to the D.C. area to pursue medical studies but also became deeply involved in its theater scene. Weich, who plays four instruments, has directed or music-directed hundreds of plays, and had earlier performed in his native New York City.
While Weich hadn’t read the book or seen the movie of “The Bridges of Madison County,” he loved the beautiful story – one that “should move the audience,” he said.
“The show has a score that’s so rich and succulent and unusual – heavy on the strings and percussion with two guitars,” Weich added. “The music has great emotional depth.”
It is also an amalgam of styles – including folk, country, pop, and operatic passages.
“I’m not a huge fan of country music,” Weich admitted. “But Brown is unusually talented.”
Jason Robert Brown also composed the music and lyrics for the Tony Award-winning “Parade,” as well as for “13” and “The Last Five Years.”
Another point of appeal for those who like their theater traditional is that “The Bridges of Madison County” is exactly that. “No one is updating it, and it’s set in the style of when it’s happening,” Weich said.
Kensington Arts Theatre is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization now in its 16th year. Its mission is to engage and challenge both actors and audiences with unusual programs and productions that exceed what is expected from non-professionals, while taking on fundamental human issues of identity and community, said John Nunemaker, executive director.
KAT Mainstage performs two musicals and one play each season, with “Steel Magnolias” to follow the current show. KAT Second Stage is producing two musicals this year. There is also KAT Junior, a musical theater program open to students in sixth through ninth grade, which will return to the stage in March of 2018 with a production of “Disney’s The Lion King JR.”
KAT performs at two venues – its Mainstage productions at the Kensington Town Hall (formerly the Armory), and its Second Stage Productions in the Gaithersburg Arts Barn.
Both programs are collaborating on a production of “A Christmas Carol” at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn during the holiday season.
“The Bridges of Madison County’ runs Oct. 27 through Nov. 18. Friday and Saturday performances are at 8:15 p.m., and Sunday performances are at 2. The Kensington Arts Theatre is at 3710 Mitchell Street, in Kensington. For more information, visit www.katonline.org.