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Jul 13, 2016

‘Bridges of Madison County’ arrives at the Peace Center

Greenville News

Paul Hyde, [email protected]:39 p.m. EDT July 13, 2016

Robert James Waller’s best-seller “The Bridges of Madison County” proved to be a perfect novel for a musical adaptation.

The romantic fantasy’s themes of love and quiet longing lent themselves easily to songs for a stage show, said Jason Robert Brown, who won two Tony Awards for the lush score of the musical.

“It’s all about heightened emotion,” Brown said. “In some ways, it makes more sense to sing the story than to narrate it.”

The national tour of “The Bridges of Madison County” arrives at the Peace Center Tuesday for eight performances through Sunday.

The musical relates the bittersweet story of Francesca, an Italian war bride who find herself in an Iowa farmhouse in 1965 with a well-meaning former G.I. and their two teenaged kids. When her family is away, Francesca encounters a traveling photographer, Robert, and the sparks fly.

Waller’s novel became an instant blockbuster when it was published in 1992. A 1995 film adaptation, starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, also proved a popular success.

Fans of the book and movie will notice a few differences in Brown’s 2013 musical. Waller’s novel focused on Robert, the photographer. The film, meanwhile, conveyed the story of the romance in flashbacks.

But the musical, with a book by playwright Marsha Norman, spotlights Francesca and the world she lives in — with greater emphasis on her family and even the neighbors.

“It’s about love but, more than that, it’s about community and it’s about home,” Brown said. “It’s very much Francesca’s story, and it’s a very powerful story that she tells.”

“You meet the other people in her life,” said Elizabeth Stanley, who plays Francesca. “You meet her neighbors, you meet her children and her husband, so you understand more deeply the choices she makes.

“That was a priority for her (Norman), she added. “She wanted to bring into the story a sense of community that exists in a small town.”

The musical opened on Broadway in September, 2013 and enjoyed a nine-month run.

Newsday’s Linda Winer called the show “a ravishingly beautiful musical play.”

The national tour launched last fall, playing major cities such as Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. It concludes in Greenville.

“You’re the finale of the whole thing,” said Andrew Samonsky, who plays Robert.

Like the novel and the film, the musical version of the story aspires to a three-hanky ending.

“It really does pull your heartstrings in a number of ways at the end,” Stanley said.

But if you think the stage show is a musical equivalent of a “chick flick,” think again.

“I see grown men weeping through the show all the time,” Brown said, with a laugh.

‘A big, bold, romantic musical’

Ironically, when Waller’s “The Bridges of Madison County” was published, Brown was not a fan.

“When the book came out, if you told me that I would make a musical out of it in 20 years, I would have said, ‘You’re outta your mind.’ It was not a book that appealed to me, a single guy in my 20s living in New York City,” Brown said.

But 20 years later, Brown was searching for a project on which he could collaborate with Norman, the playwright best known for “’night, Mother.”

“What I wanted to write was a big, bold, romantic musical,” Brown said.

Norman suggested “The Bridges of Madison County.”

“We started going through the book and talking about what the show could be,” Brown said. “To my surprise, I could hear the music almost immediately. I knew what it should sound like and how it should feel. It became a piece that spoke to me personally. I felt I had a lot to say about it. I’m very proud of it.”

Brown’s score mixes folk, country, pop and even operatic passages. It won two Tony Award for Brown: Best Original Score and Best Orchestrations.

Samonsky particularly enjoys the songs with a folk accent.

“It evokes that middle America sound,” Samonsky said. “I love that type of folk music.”

The show is a tour de force for the actors playing Francesca and Robert.

“It’s definitely one of the biggest vocal workouts I’ve ever had in a show,” Samonsky said. “I really have to take good care of myself on this tour — a lot of rest and no socializing. It’s made me a hermit on the tour.”

Samonsky fell in love with the show when he first saw it on Broadway.

“It really hit me hard emotionally,” Samonsky said. “When you get down to it, it’s not your typical romance. It’s very complex and messy and thus a real romance. Love is messy and complicated. On top of that, Jason’s score and lyrics are just phenomenal.”

Samonsky has been a fan of Brown’s shows since the 1995 “Songs For a New World.”

“He was a real game-changer in musical theater,” Samonsky said of Brown. “He brought a contemporary sound to the forefront of musical theater.”

The New York City-based Stanley said the 20-member cast is feeling wistful about the conclusion of the national tour.

“It’s sad when a show ends because you have a bond with the people you tour with,” she said. “But it’s always nice to go home, too.”

Arts Writer Paul Hyde is vacationing in Italy. Follow his travels on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.

YOU CAN GO

What: “The Bridges of Madison County: The Musical” by Jason Robert Brown (music and lyric) and Marsha Norman (book)

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Peace Center Concert Hall

Tickets: $25 to $85

Information: 864-467-3000 or www.peacecenter.org