- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 5, 2016

“The Bridges of Madison County” has crossed many rivers to get to the Kennedy Center — and not just the Potomac. From its humble beginnings as a novel by Robert James Waller, the book became a critically acclaimed film starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, who also directed, in 1995.

And in an era when everything old is new again, in 2013 the story was workshopped at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, which was where current touring director Tyne Rafaeli picked up the story of the story’s translation into a musical.

“Realizing any new musical is an enormous, inexpressible challenge,” Ms. Tyne told The Washington Times of bringing the show from its Williamstown beginnings all the way to Broadway, where it consistently sold out.

But with such a large palette to play with on the Great White Way, numerous challenges lurked for the creative team.

“The source material is incredibly intimate; it’s basically a duet,” Ms. Rafaeli said, adding that book writer Marsha Norman and music writer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown expanded the narrative to include the community beyond the house where the action between Francesca and Robert takes place in the story.

Ms. Rafaeli, who received the 2013-14 Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation Sir John Gielgud Fellowship for Classical Direction, said that another major challenge was translating the book’s moral ambiguity into a viable musical plot.

“It’s about this woman who finds herself in a particular set of circumstances where she has familial obligations and community obligations, and then this man comes into her life and … she faces a very very tough moral conundrum,” she said.

“It’s very hard to do without [applying] judgment and keeping her a likeable character, but also being honest about where she finds herself.”

In the touring production, Elizabeth Stanley, a veteran of such Broadway productions as “Million Dollar Quartet” and “On the Town,” stars as the tormented Francesca. Robert is played by Andrew Samonsky, who has appeared on TV’s “Elementary.”

Ms. Rafaeli heaps praise on Miss Stanley, and said that in her direction, she gave Miss Stanley and the rest of the cast room to make artistic choices that both honor the source material but also allow the actors to bring something of themselves to their roles. She said that Miss Andrews makes especially smashing work of a song in the second act wherein Francesca recalls her life before World War II. Francesca’s reflection happens not only in song, but is realized in the staging as the scenery itself changes behind her during the number.

“We’re sitting in this farmhouse in Iowa, and all of a sudden, prewar Naples pours onto stage,” Ms. Rafaeli relates. “And you get such a beautiful sense of why Francesca fell in love with her husband, how honorable and real it was at the time, and [what] a huge cultural change it was to come to America. So you get all this in that context to the marriage. It’s really profound.”

The director said that that particular number, as well as the rest of the show, shines a light on the nature of memory, and how “once you unlock that door, they come flooding in.”

Ms. Rafaeli majored in history, so it’s perhaps little wonder that she is drawn to such works as the historical “The Bridges of Madison County” — and its story of female empowerment.

“I just find untold female stories in history, especially ones that are complicated and controversial, I keep enjoying them for some reason,” she said.

Ms. Rafaeli calls the touring company the best she has ever worked with, and says they are all enjoying their time in the nation’s capital.

“It’s a really, really extraordinary company, and you won’t see anything else like this,” she said.

“The Bridges of Madison County” will be at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre through July 17. Tickets are $49 to $129 by going to Kennedy-Center.org.

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