Joanna Ampil and MiG Ayesa may have tackled important roles in their long and fruitful careers in international musical theater, yet they say that their current project is one of their most difficult yet.
They will play the leads in the two-time Tony Award-nominated “The Bridges of Madison County,” a musical on the separate but intertwined universes of fidelity and happiness.
The music and lyrics are by Jason Robert Brown, and the book is by Marsha Norman, adapted from the Robert James Waller novel.
“Bridges,” which runs at Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium in RCBC Plaza, Makati, from Nov. 20 to Dec. 6, is the first international production of the material. It is being staged by Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group, with Metrobank Card Corp., under Bobby Garcia’s direction.
As a novel, “The Bridges of Madison County” was a 1992 best seller that sold more than 50 million copies worldwide.
For movie enthusiasts, Ampil and Ayesa will have to stand against a 1995 film of the same title that starred Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. As Francesca, Streep was nominated best actress in the Academy Awards.
“The piece is hard,” says Ampil. “Everything is emotionally draining; this is, to date, my most emotional role.”
Ampil—who made waves with her West End portrayal of Kim in “Miss Saigon,” and Eponine and later Fantine in “Les Miserables”—plays Francesca Johnson, an Italian who gets married and raises a family in Iowa.
Her character feels unfulfilled yet sticks it out with her husband and two children—until she encounters a stranger who somehow personifies her dreams and aspirations and forces her to question her loyalties, just when her family is away to attend an Illinois state fair.
“There are a lot of breakdowns. You cannot help but get carried away,” says Ampil. “There’s no way to play the character but to immerse yourself in it because you don’t want to be half-hearted.”
The role could be among the most difficult written for any female actor, admits Garcia. “The amount of work she has to put in is immense. She is in all scenes but one… and her only break from the stage might be a 15-second costume change.”
But Ampil is “phenomenally talented,” adds Garcia, the reason he called her first for the role. “We’ve always wanted to work together…. I’ve been waiting for the right show, and it took years. I didn’t want to rush it; it had to be tamang panahon (the right time).”
Fil-Australian Ayesa—of “Rock of Ages” and “We Will Rock You” fame on Broadway and the West End—plays Robert Kincaid, a photographer assigned by National Geographic to shoot the bridges of Madison County; he meets Francesca along the way. Their encounter would flourish into a love affair over four days.
Garcia had one thing in mind when he chose the actor: “Siya ’yon e.” It’s an observation Ayesa notices himself.
“I happen to be very Robert Kincaid,” he explains. “I could say there is so much Robert that is me, and that’s quite scary. It’s a bit of art imitating life in a way. He comes from a broken marriage, he’s a photographer, he lives his life in a suitcase, he’s been very guarded with his heart and for the first time he’s starting to experience love.”
All these are personal to Ayesa, who says he also loves his camera and travels a lot. Likewise, he’s been through a divorce, but is now happily in a relationship, a “rebirth of love.”
He adds: “Sometimes I have to separate myself a little bit because I tend to take things personally—and also I’m working with Joanna, who’s a very emotional performer.”
Aside from being emotionally demanding, the play is also “challenging vocally,” notes Ampil.
Jason Robert Brown’s score is “breathtakingly beautiful,” says Ayesa. “He blends a lot of styles into one cohesive piece, and you see the musical motifs that come out underneath the melodies. Very clever, very Bernstein the way he does that.”
“The music is great,” echoes Garcia, who points out he was attracted to it before he even liked the plot. “It’s one of the best musical theater scores I’ve listened to in a long time. It is emotional. It is passionate. It just captivated me.”
The main actors had no previous encounter with the material. Ampil had worked with Brown, but that was long before he wrote the musical. Ayesa failed to watch a friend of his who was in the Broadway production that starred Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale, because he was touring with “Thriller Live” then.
When offered the role, he familiarized himself with the material through downloads on iTunes.
As the cast runs through the show after over four weeks of rehearsals, Garcia says they are “as ready as we ultimately can.”
“It’s natural for anyone to wish we had a little more time, but we’re doing really well, and that says a lot about the talent here,” he explains, adding that unlike productions abroad that get three full weeks for previews, local ones get only one day, “and that’s their final dress rehearsal. ”
Only a few little tweaks were made to adapt to the Filipino crowd, he says. There is no need to make major adjustments because the audience “is as intelligent and sophisticated as any elsewhere in the world.”
The story will resonate with Filipinos—“to being in love and being torn,” says Ampil. “It’s ultimately a story about love, and the music takes it to a completely different level.”
“Morally, we’re going into the dangerous side of fidelity, yes,” notes Ayesa. “But it’s not the intention. Robert Kincaid is a single man who falls in love with a woman who happens to be married unfortunately, but this whole thing, this love proves to be bigger than anything else, bigger than we can even imagine…. He’s found light and it blows his mind. We’re finding him at the most wonderful moment of his life.”
Explains Garcia: “It’s timeless love, a familiar story. It is a great romance. Filipinos love a good love story, and it gets you to think about what love means, in its many facets.”
Says Ampil: “Theatergoers are ready for something like this. They’ve been waiting.”
Also in the cast are Carla Guevara-Laforteza, Nino Alejandro, Emeline Celis-Guinid, Jamie Wilson, Bibo Reyes, Mikkie Bradshaw, Steven Conde, Nel Gomez, Franz Imperial, Yanah Laurel, Abi Sulit and Teetin Villanueva.
Choreography is by Cecile Martinez, with musical direction by Ceejay Javier, set design by Faust Peneyra, lighting design by JonJon Villareal, costume design by Eric Pineda, hair and makeup by Johann dela Fuente and vocal direction by ManMan Angsico.
“The Bridges of Madison Country” runs Nov. 20-Dec. 6 at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, RCBC Plaza, Makati City. Call 8919999.