The Keegan Theatre is easily the most productive small company in Washington and one of the city’s busiest, period, putting up new shows every six weeks or so in the Dupont Circle theater it bought several years ago. The current production of “The Bridges of Madison County” is a snapshot of the 21-year-old troupe at its best and worst, capturing the rapture of Jason Robert Brown’s score but then slipping up with crippling sound design issues.
“Bridges” can be ravishing, and the ace in this staging is Susan Derry, whose operatic soprano is exactly right for Francesca, the Italian war bride pining away in 1965 Iowa after 20 years of marriage. Derry is wonderful with Francesca’s anxieties when her family leaves for a state fair and a handsome National Geographic photographer shows up in her driveway. Derry is naturally funny — this ultra-earnest romance needs that — and she sounds terrific as the score soars into Italian-inflected arias.
Dan Felton can sing his part, too, though he’s not entirely convincing as Robert, the irresistibly laid-back stranger who sweeps Francesca off her feet. But then it’s a silly role (“The tornado of his eyes,” if you please) in an overwrought fantasy, no matter how many copies Robert James Waller’s novel sold or how hard it is to say no to Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep in the movie.
Brown’s glorious music and Marsha Norman’s sharp book elevate the material. It’s easy to like all the characters, which is remarkable (director Kurt Boehm’s appealing cast notably includes Chad Wheeler as Francesca’s perfectly fine husband, Bud). And the first act’s sweep of classical, pop, folk and country music is always a delight.
Music director Elisa Rosman’s small guitar-violin-piano-percussion ensemble doesn’t always nail the tricky rhythms and subtle pulses, though, and the sound system hit unbearable glitches on opening night — something that will probably be fixed fast. “Bridges” sinks quickly with any nick to its delicate souls and exquisite melodies.
By the second act, even the story will try your patience. It’s “Bridges of Madison County,” after all, which means eventually you’re submitted to awful yearning ballads like Robert’s “It All Fades Away.” Blood will have blood, as Macbeth says, and in “Bridges,” sap will have sap.
“Macbeth” is the classical half of the two-play rep from 4615 Theatre Company, as the cast doubles in it and in Moira Buffini’s 2002 black comedy “Dinner.” Space for emerging artists is tight in Washington — Keegan’s enviable home used to be a shared stage — and 4615, named for the address of the house where it produced its first show in 2013, currently operates in a 30-seat black box on a side street in Silver Spring.
Surprisingly, the “Macbeth” fashioned by artistic director Jordan Friend fits smoothly in the room where the audience sits in a single row on either side of the narrow stage. The fights are quite good and the language is ably handled, especially by Jared H. Graham (who is hyper-alert but not as reflective as he could be in the soliloquies) and Charlene V. Smith (intelligent, if not menacing) as the Macbeths.
You wouldn’t think of “Macbeth” as an appetizer except that we get a lot of that here in Shakespeare City; another “Macbeth” will be at the Folger Theatre next month. That makes the main course “Dinner,” a juicy satire by English playwright Moira Buffini, whose barbed Margaret Thatcher-Queen Elizabeth comedy “Handbagged” set box office records at Round House Theatre this winter. “Dinner” serves up some of the same spiky humor as a sadistic, bitter hostess offers her guests such grotesque delicacies as Primordial Soup.
Stevie Zimmerman’s cast mostly savors the zingy dialogue and lands the laughs at a party for an author who made a killing in the market and has now written a controversial, amoral philosophy book. Smith plays a warm earth mother who’s a witty contrast from her Lady Macbeth; Graham likewise switches gears as a jolly low-class thief crashing the party; and Alani Kravitz and Matthew Castleman play a venomous, get-the-guests married couple in the mode of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
The arch tone grows stale when it’s not clear Buffini will make a substantial point, though the menacing Agatha Christie tone pays off with a quick twisted finish. Blood will have blood, even if this time the verbally dashing Buffini’s just deserts don’t quite stick to the ribs.
The Bridges of Madison County, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, book by Marsha Norman. Directed by Kurt Boehm. About 2½ hours. Through Sept. 2 at the Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW. $55. 202-265-3767 or keegantheatre.com
Macbeth, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Jordan Friend. About 2 hours. Through Aug. 19. In rep with:
Dinner, by Moira Buffini. Directed by Stevie Zimmerman. About 90 minutes. Through Aug. 25 at the Highwood Theatre, 914 Silver Spring Ave., Silver Spring. $16.50. 4615theatre.com