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It might have been easy for composer Jason Robert Brown to phone it in when scoring the musical adaptation of a well-known film (and best-selling novel), and simply provide enough catchy and evocative melodies to satiate the audience's thirst for standard musical theater fare. But with his score for "The Bridges of Madison County," which opens a three-week run Friday at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, the audience gets something unique and vibrant.
Brown's score evokes both the American heartland in which the play is set and the sense of wanderlust and romance that some of the characters feel. It's written for a small acoustic ensemble (including some actors who play instruments onstage) and amps the story up several notches for maximum emotional impact. "There are some hummable songs but also some of the music really stings you to the core. It's a classic, rich, lush score: His melodies really epitomize romantic ballads and the texture of the music stands out," actor Michael Halling said. Halling plays Robert Kincaid, a traveling photographer who finds himself falling in love with Francesca, an Italian immigrant who married a soldier after World War II and now lives in rural Iowa. "The music matches what your body and soul are doing as a singer because it's so articulate in that way," he adds.
Joan Hess, who plays Francesca, said that it was the score that inspired her to learn the music and seek out the role. "I think that musical theater might be the best way to tell this story," she added.
The story is well-known to those who are familiar with the best-selling Robert James Waller novel or the film starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood: A woman leaves home and marries young, and 18 years later finds her desire to build a home for her family clashes with the new excitement she feels around Kincaid.
Director Robert Hupp saw the play on Broadway without having read the book or seen the film, and was drawn in by the music and the story: "When I saw it, it was so far above what I thought it would be as a musical. It was such a powerful experience in the theater that I knew I wanted to share it with audiences here in Little Rock," he said. "Whatever you might hope for from the best musical, the best drama, it's all right here."
The Rep's production will be the regional premiere of this musical, which opened on Broadway in 2014. "Not many people in the world have had a chance to see this, so Little Rock is pretty lucky. The national tour has just started this year, and the New York run was pretty short," Hess said. Additionally, the play will be the final one directed by Hupp, who has been The Rep's producing artistic director for the last 17 seasons. "It's poignant for me as my last show as director because it epitomizes what we do best at The Rep. The actors are diving into something challenging and rewarding, and we hope the audience will experience that, too," he says.
Fate sets the play's characters on a path that in many ways jostles them from their everyday lives and forces them to make decisions that will define their futures and send ripples throughout their small rural community. Noah Racey plays Francesca's husband, Bud, and as an actor who's worked in many musicals, he praised the play as "the lifeblood of our kind of theater." His character in many ways represents the rugged American farmer — dependent upon the land, his family and the surrounding community. "I've spent most of my life in someone like Kincaid's shoes, so it's fun for me to play a family man, a bedrock of the community." He noted that the play stays firmly connected to the rural landscape where it's set.
"What do you go to the theater for?" Hupp asked. "To be transported somewhere else to have an experience that you can't find anywhere else. Here we have that experience created by some of the best actors in the country performing one of the best stories created for musical theater." Hess added: "At the base of our human experience, we all want to love and be loved. There's something that will certainly be stirred within you by this play. You won't want to miss it."
"The Bridges of Madison County" plays through Sunday, May 1. Special events include a panel discussion at the Clinton School for Public Service at noon Thursday, April 7; "Pay Your Age Night" on Sunday, April 10; and Sign Interpreter Night on Wednesday, April 20. More information is available at therep.org..