Review: ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ at Kensington Arts Theatre

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“For all sad words of tongue and pen, The saddest are these, ‘It might have been’,” wrote poet John Greenleaf Whittier. The themes of “what might have been” and “what if” were prominent in The Bridges of Madison County, which started life as a novel by Robert James Waller, then a movie with Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep, and even a musical. Kensington Arts Theatre’s musical version, featuring music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, a book by Marsha Norman, and musical direction by Stuart Y. Weich, was brilliantly directed by Craig Pettinati. The Bridges of Madison County is a jackpot of memorable performances and impassioned singing.

Malarie Zeeks as Marge, Christopher Gillespie as Bud, Jon Simmons as Charlie, James Swindell as Michael, and Annie Coulson as Carolyn. Photo by Mark McLaughlin.

It is said that eighty percent of directing is casting. Pettinati casted flawlessly when he chose Elizabeth Hester as Italian war bride Francesca Johnson. With her velvet voice and lovely Italian accent, Hester brought Francesca aka Frannie to vivid life. Francesca’s dilemma was a choice between life with her family in 1965 Indiana or life with National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid.

Hester excelled in her solos: “To Build a Home;” “What Do You Call a Man Like That?;” “Almost Real,” in which she sang about her life back in Naples, Italy with her late lover Paolo and sister Kiara; and “Before and After You.”

Jonathan M. Rizzardi was commanding and virile as Robert Kincaid. With romance novel looks, Rizzardi powerfully soloed in “Temporarily Lost;” “Wondering;” “The World Inside a Frame,” in which he sang of life as a photographer; “Who We Are;” and the tear inducing “It All Fades Away.” His vocals were among the best I’ve heard this year.

Rizzardi and Hester sang delightful duets: “Look at Me;” “Falling into You;” “A Million Miles;” and the heart wrenching “Always Better.” The two stars’ onstage affinity was evident throughout, especially in the bedroom scenes.

Jonathan M. Rizzardi as Robert and Elizabeth Hester as Francesca. Photo by Mark McLaughlin.

Christopher Gillespie was well cast as Francesca’s husband, Richard “Bud” Johnson. I loved his solo in “Something From a Dream” and his participation in “Home Before You Know It.” Gillespie brought a salt-of-the-earth good naturedness to Bud.

Jon Simmons did a wonderful job as the Johnson’s neighbor Charlie. He brought a good humor to his role, and his duet with Gillespie in “When I’m Gone” was moving. Malarie Zeeks was sassy as Charlie’s wife, Marge. I adored her romantic solo “Get Closer.”

“Another Life,” a song about Robert Kincaid’s backstory, was hauntingly sang by Jessica McLanahan. McLanahan brought depth and mystery to her scenes.

Francesca’s teenagers, Michael and Carolyn were played by James Swindell and Annie Coulson. Their vocals were fantastic in “Home Before You Know It.” Swindell excelled in his antagonistic scenes with his father, played by Gillespie. Allison Meyer and Mia Blackman made for a strong ensemble.

Pettinati tuned his cast’s performances to a high level. Musical Director Weich also served well as Conductor. Matt Karner did a wonderful job with Special Effects (along with Jeff Clausen) and Scenic Design. A large, framed, upstage screen showed moving road footage in driving scenes and beautiful shots of Naples Italy. A minor drawback was a behind-the-screen light which in some scenes may or may not have been meant to be the sun. Jared Johnson’s property work showed a lot of hard work; I liked the old-school blue and red cooler, vintage suitcase, and the stylish 60s radio. The Bridges of Madison County is a moving musical, ideal for families everywhere.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.

The Bridges of Madison County plays through November 18, 2017 at Kensington Arts Theatre performing at Kensington Town Center – 3710 Mitchell Street, in Kensington, MD. For tickets, call (240) 621-0528, or purchase them online.

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