Beth Shestak and Kyle McDonald in “The Bridges of Madison County” at the Henegar Center. Photo by Dana Niemeier.
By PAM HARBAUGH
Romance takes center stage Friday with the opening of the musical “The Bridges of Madison County,” at the Henegar Center.
The musical is based on the 1995 movie starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. That, in turn, had been based on Robert James Waller’s 1992 novel set in the farmlands of Iowa. It centers on Francesca, a lonely married woman who meets a photographer, Robert Kincaid, taking pictures of famous covered bridges where she lives.
It all turned into a 2014 Broadway musical when producers turned to Marsha Norman (“Secret Garden”) to write the book and Jason Robert Brown (“Prince of Broadway”) to compose the music and write the lyrics.
And just as the two characters fall in love, the two leads in the Henegar’s production are totally smitten by the music.
“It’s a dream role,” said Beth Shestak, who has worked professionally on Off-Broadway and in television and film.
“The emotional weight and lush orchestration make it some of the most fulfilling (vocals) I’ve ever sung,” said Kyle McDonald, a well-respected singer/conductor who has performed in more than two dozen musicals at Titusville Playhouse.
Indeed, the show’s music became almost immediately legendary and resonated more than the production The Broadway production had two heavyweights attached to it: Director Barlett Sher, America’s pre-eminent director of musicals including “An American in Paris” and most recently, “My Fair Lady”; and starred Kelli O’Hara, who worked with Sher in two Lincoln Center productions, “The Light in the Piazza” and “South Pacific.” However, the show lasted almost four months, and that was after more than a month of previews.
Its score always has had people rhapsodizing about the musical. The show’s only awards – both the Tony and the Drama Desk — went to Brown for best original score and best orchestration.
In fact, the reason McDonald auditioned for it was because of the music.
“One thing that was on my ‘bucket list’ as a performer was to be a part of a Jason Robert Brown musical,” he said. “He is such a smart writer and able to write in a way that makes sense to the story. When I saw auditions, I knew I had to be a part of it.”
Shestak got a chance to see the show on Broadway and knew right away that if she ever had a chance to be in it, she’d jump for it because “it’s a singer’s show.”
“I loved it,” she said. “The music in this show is absolutely gorgeous. It has the feel of an operetta but it also incorporates multiple different styles and genres to express each character in a different and unique way.”
Producing “Bridges” is also part of the Henegar’s continuing trademark of bringing new shows to the stage. In fact, it can claim Brevard debuts of many shows. In 2015, it became the country’s first community theater to mount “Cry Baby: The Musical.” The next season, it brought “Witches of Eastwick,” “It Shoulda Been You,” “Hands on a Hardbody” and “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” to the stage. This season, in addition to “Bridges,” it brought the popular drama “I and You” to the Brevard’s theater scene. Next season, the Henegar will bring “Bonnie and Clyde” to the area.
“At the Henegar we specifically choose shows to give a different experience than you can get elsewhere,” said Amanda Cheyenne Manis, the show’s director and the Henegar’s artistic director. “The choice benefits everyone involved because our audience gets to see something new, our actors get to perform in shows they’ve never done before, and our technical and production crew work hard to add new and exciting elements to our shows and sets.
“The actors for this show are phenomenal. I’ve continued with this year’s trend of a mix of familiar faces and new and it has served us so well. Jason Robert Brown’s music is so challenging, but when you hear it I think all will agree it’s worth the effort needed by all the musicians and vocalists to perform it.”
And chances are, after theater patrons see “The Bridges of Madison County” and familiarize themselves with the music, the show eventually will come to life in other area theaters as well.
Of course there is more to the show than the music and the given circumstances. There is the nuance of character, the moral choice, the yearning of desire and the tug of family.
Francesca’s husband and children have gone out of town. She meets Robert Kincaid and shares deep secrets. He awakens her heart, long buried by duty. Within a day, they fall in love and make plans to leave the small Iowa town.
Actors have to not only be able to let their voices sail on the soaring tunes, but also dig into themselves to deliver multiple layers to what are believable characters thrown into what some may say is an unlikely scenario.
“This role is definitely one of the more demanding roles I have ever done,” Shestak said.
“It’s a very emotional ride,” McDonald said. “The star crossed love of Francesca and Robert is beautiful and heart wrenching.”
Helping them both has been not only Manis but also the cast, they said.
“Working with the cast has been great,” Shestak said. “You always go through a getting to know you stage, but everyone has been easy to get along with and that always makes the process very enjoyable. I didn’t know my leading man, Kyle McDonald, until we started rehearsals. He has been just a gem to work with. Extremely talented and knowledgeable and I couldn’t be happier.”
It’s been especially grueling for McDonald who had to split his time rehearsing “Bridges” with conducting for Titusville Playhouse’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” which ended its run last Sunday.
“I’ve been very privileged to work with production teams that allow me to split my time,” he said. “the talent in ‘Bridges’ is top notch so working with them during the rehearsal process has been wonderful.”
Both actors say audiences will love this show. Just be sure to bring hankies.
“Bridges only ran for about three months on Broadway, unfortunately,” McDonald said. “But I always say, Broadway’s loss is Brevard’s gain. This is a gorgeous, beautifully written musical.”
SIDE O’ GRITS: “The Bridges of Madison County” opens Friday and runs through May 20 at the Henegar Center, 625 E. New Haven Ave., Melbourne. It performs 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $26 general, $23 seniors and military and $16 students. There is a $3 service fee per ticket. Call 321-723-8698 or visit Henegar.org.
This is an edited version of a story running in the Melbourne Beachsider.