You have to congratulate the nerve of The Bridges of Madison County. Robert James Waller's 1992 novel sold over 50 milion copies by persuading America to sentimentalize and celebrate a 1960s housewife's adultery with a National Geographic photographer.
Composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown and author Marsha Norman's musical amplifies this audacity, turning the novel's protagonist Francesca (Elisa Matthews) into a repressed artist who escaped Naples as a war bride for her swaggering American soldier Bud (Robert Stineman).
In her opening number "To Build a Home," Francesca recounts their 18-year marriage, detailing a backstory of boredom on a farm in America's heartland. When Bud takes the kids and their prize steer to the Indiana State Fair for four days, she falls in love with Robert Kincaid (Derek Basthemer), still a photographer with National Geographic, but now more of an existentialism spouting long-haired hippie type (hardly the 52-year old former vet of the book).
But in these changes and the power of Brown's music, this production at the Media Theatre surpasses in potent storytelling and raw emotional appeal what the book achieved in sales and cultural impact. With another cast, Brown's songs would sound maudlin and syrupy; at the Media, they help craft a moving portrait as iconic as a Norman Rockwell painting.
Matthews' gorgeous soprano provides a lovely contrast to the two male leads, her operatic phrasings revealing a reluctant immigrant's dichotomy of looking homeward while clinging to the permanence of her life. With his soft twang, any of Stineman's numbers could hit on the country charts, and Basthemer captures the spirit of American independence and wanderlust in the Whitmanesque "It All Fades Away." (His character's existential shtick seduces in song, as Basthemer's angst makes it new again despite everyone under 40 acting that way today).
All three deliver compelling acting performances, particularly Stineman and Matthews in how each, with a stoic's visage and eyes set on the hardship of reality, barely conceals an inner sadness that bleeds through every line.
When Francesca declares early "I have all that I need right here" shortly after the rousing company number "You're Never Alone," the chorus galvanizes her understanding. In this musical about a photographer and the community he disrupts, director Jesse Cline uses images potently in Steven Spera's lighting design, enlarging the thematic and moral scope.
If adultery must occur, let it not be a secretive affair that lurks under the still waters that Waller depicted, but a skirmish in a celebration of America's heartland that pits the contrast of home and hearth against the freedom of the coasts and the open road. "There's a world inside this frame" Robert sings about his camera. There's the world inside this musical at the Media.
The Bridges of Madison County. Presented through October 23 at The Media Theatre, 104 E. State St. Media. Tickets: $25 to $50. Information: 610-891-0100 or mediatheatre.org