MANILA – Filipino audiences finally get to discover just how terrific and talented Joanna Ampil truly is as the bored Iowa housewife in the stage musical adaptation of the 1992 romance best-seller “The Bridges of Madison County,” which is now on its second weekend at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium of RCBC Plaza in Makati.
Although Ampil has appeared in several musical productions in Manila since her critically acclaimed performances in London’s West End (“Miss Saigon,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Les Miserables,” “Cats”), local theater fans haven’t seen her in a role as demanding as that of Francesca Johnson, an Italian war bride transplanted to an American farm after she marries a GI, who meets a traveling National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid in the 1960s.
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She played Maria in a commercially successful production of “The Sound of Music” at Resorts World Manila and just a couple of months before “Bridges” opened last week, she took on the lead role of an amateur singer-turned-drag performer in the silly and lightweight “Chuva Choo Choo.”
Ampil showed a glimpse of what she can do – given the right role – in a special concert version of “South Pacific,” where she gave a rich and mature interpretation of the perky hick Nellie Forbush.
This time, we get the whole picture.
From the moment she strolled to center stage in the opening solo “To Build a Home,” we immediately get to fully appreciate Ampil’s gifts – her classic musical theater voice that’s powerful, thrilling and seemingly effortless, her confident command of the stage and natural yet emotional delivery.
While there have been quibbles about her inconsistent (mostly absent, actually) Italian accent – perfectly rendered by Meryl Streep in her Oscar-nominated turn in the movie version of the book – Ampil nonetheless captured the romantic dilemma of her character in a refreshingly grown-up, open-eyed manner.
More than Ampil’s accent, the material itself has to compete with director Clint Eastwood’s remarkably quiet yet moving movie adaptation. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman expanded the scope of the book which was practically a two-character story, adding new characters – a nosy neighbor and her husband – and fully fleshing out Francesca’s farmer-husband Bud as well their two children. She even included a back story of Kincaid’s ex-wife with a beautiful solo ("Another Life" dreamily performed by Carla Guevara-Laforteza).
But what truly lifts this stage musical from the popular though panned book is Jason Robert Brown’s evocative music. Much like the songs in “The Last Five Years,” Brown composed character pieces, which straddle various genres from the sweeping Broadway arias for Francesca, country and western for Bud and singer-songwriter folk-pop for Kincaid but always with sweeping emotions that easily find their target and leave audiences swooning – and devastated at the end.
Just as Ampil nailed her soaring numbers, she was well matched by her leading man, Broadway and West End veteran MiG Ayesa (“Rock of Ages,” “We Will Rock You”), who tones down his rock star image to give Kincaid a mellow, almost shy personality. With his emo pop crooning style, he is mainly responsible for providing the romance in the story, and bringing that “kilig” factor in what is essentially a middle-aged love story with his musing and declarations.
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Director Bobby Garcia similarly showed restraint in the staging while inspiring his creative team to shine. Apart from the performances, “Bridges” will be remembered for Faust Peynera’s stylized scenic design. He framed the entire stage like a painting and uses framed photos of various sizes to provide the setting showing landscapes of plains and trees and sunsets. Edison lamps create a hipster version of a starry sky while the titular bridge suggested by three ladders.
Ceejay Javier’s luscious musical direction captures the drama and nuances of Brown’s score.
While audience already expect Ampil and Ayesa to deliver, Garcia also guided “The Voice of the Philippines” contestant Nino Alejandro to his best performance to date as Bud, complete with a believable country and western drawl. His sympathetic portrayal of an all-American good guy definitely made this love triangle trickier – and the ending realistic.
The stage musical may not have its version of that memorable scene at the crossroads in the movie. But then there’s Ampil. The emotional appeal of “Bridges of Madison County” has always been about its theme of sacrifice and Ampil conveys that and more in the finale “Always Better,” which is guaranteed to bring audiences to tears – in a good cry kind of way – and on their feet for a much deserved standing ovation.
“The Bridges of Madison County” runs until December 6 at RCBC Plaza, Makati.