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A CurtainUp DC Review
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"If you knew my story, you'd have a good story to tell. " — Alice Murphy, the wild child who became a frigid literary agent.
bright star
Carmen Cusack lights up Bright Star (Photo: Joan Marcus).
Bright Star, currently at the Kennedy Center, and headed for Broadway's Cort Theatre next February, lacks luster. However, the heavy on the banjo bluegrass score composed by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell has many soothing moments along with raucous thigh-slappin' and toe tappin' rhythms. The onstage 10-person orchestra — several members play more than one instrument — serves the music well. Even the audience gets into the spirit by clapping heartily at the beginning and end of the second act. But Edie Brickell's lyrics are trite, tedious and repetitious.

Steve Martin, who wrote Bright Star's book, is as everyone knows an enormously gifted artist and clever satirist. Though Bright Star is far from satire, his quirky one-liners, of which there are too few, do shine. They serve as a welcome antidote to the show's melodramatic and somewhat predictable story line.

Two couples take center stage: The soldier home to North Carolina from the war who loves— although it took him some time to realize it— and his childhood playmate who works in a bookstore. There's also the mayor's son who much to his father's regret falls hard for a sassy local gal, who becomes a very demure literary agent. The plot twists and turns though there'll be no spoiling the surprise here. But ... while the first act ends with heartbreaking tragedy, the second and much better act is far more upbeat in its plot and in its music.

The weight of the show falls on Carmen Cusack whose strong voice and acting makes the character of Alice Murphy very real, very sympatica. She has no trouble taking the audience with her on her emotional highs and lows. Her beau, Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Paul Alexander Nolan), the son of obnoxious Mayor Josiah Dobbs (a strong performance by Michael Mulheren), has the most difficult part as he has very little to work with. His character comes over a bit wishy-washy and, btw, where was he during the crucial moments of Act One?

The other couple, Billy Cane (A.J.Shively) and Hannah Elless (Margo Crawford), are quite sweet as they mature from school kids to young lovers. Their duet in the second act, "Always Will," is very pleasing. Tall, lanky, loose-limbed goofy dancer/actor/singer Jeff Blumenkrantz as Daryl, the would-be writer and dour keeper of the gate at Alice's literary agency, steals every scene he is in. He is Bright Star's comic relief and great fun to watch.

The main characters are well supported by an ensemble of gifted dancers and singers but where the show pleases is in its music, well supervised by Peter Asher, arranged by Rob Berman and with orchestrations by August Eriksmoen. Eugene Lee's set includes a wooden barn that doubles as a home and as a hangout for the musicians. It is wheeled on and off stage as are desks, chairs, beds, and so on. After a while, though, there seems to be too much on and off for this genre of scenery. Upstaging all that is a toy-like train, complete with whistle, that rolls along the top of the stage. Jane Greenwood's costumes are appropriate to 1945-1946 and the flashbacks to 1923.

The direction by Walter Bobbie plays second fiddle to Josh Rhodes's choreography which is particularly fine in the hoedown and square dance scenes. Makes you want to grab a partner and do-si-do. Would that the rest of Bright Star were as lively.

Bright Star
Music, lyrics and story by Steve Martin
Music, lyrics and story by Edie Brickell
Director, Walter Bobbie
Choreographer, Josh Rhodes
Dance Captain, Richard Gatta
Music Supervisor, Peter Asher
Music Director/Vocal Arranger, Rob Berman
Orchestrations, August Eriksmoen
Scenic Designer, Eugene Lee
Costume Designer, Jane Greenwood
Lighting Designer, Japhy Weideman
Sound Designer, Nevin Steinberg

Cast: A.J.Shively (Billy Cane); Stephen Bogardus (Daddy Cane); Hannah Elless (Margo Crawford); Max Chernin (Max/Ensemble); Sarah Jane Shanks (Florence/Ensemble);Sandra DeNise (Edna/Ensemble); Jeff Blumenkrantz (Daryl Ames); Emily Padgett (Lucy Grant); Carmen Cusack (Alice Murphy); Paul Alexander Nolan (Jimmy Ray Dobbs); Stephen Lee Anderson (Daddy Murphy); Dee Hoty (Mamma Murphy); Michael Mulheren (Mayor Josiah Dobbs); William Youmans (Stanford Adams/Ensemble); Michael X. Martin (Dr. Norquist/Ensemble); Patrick Cummings (Stationmaster/Ensemble); Allison Briner-Dardenne (County Clerk/Ensemble); Tony Roach (Ensemble).

Musicians: Rob Berman (piano/accordion/conductor); Bennett Sulivan (banjo/guitar); Kenny Brescia (acoustic guitar/electric guitar); Bobby Baxmeyer (mandolin/guitar/lap steel guitar); Martha McDonnell (violin); Philippe Chao (viola/violin); Amy Baumgarten (cello); Michael Pearce (bass); Steve Bartosik (drums/percussion); Anthony De Angelis (keyboard/accordion). Run time: 2 1/2 hours, one 15-minute intermission

Kennedy Center, Washington, DC; December 2, 2015 to January 10, 2016. Tickets start at $45. www.kennedy-center.org; 202-467-4600. Performances at the Cort Theatre, New York City, begin February 25, 2016; opening night, March 24, 2016.

Review by Susan Davidson based on December 17, 2015 performance.
Musical Numbers
Act One
    "If You Knew My Story"
    "She's Gone"
    "Bright Star"
    "Way Back In the Day"
    "Whoa, Mama"
    "Firmer Hand/Do Right"
    "A Man's Gotta Do"
    "Asheville"
    "What Could Be Better"
    "I Can't Wait"
    "Please Don't Take Him"
    "A Man's Gotta Do" reprise
Act Two
    "Sun's Gonna Shine"
    "Heartbreaker"
    "Another Round"
    "I Had a Vision"
    "Always Will"
    "I Can't Wait" reprise
    "So Familiar"
    "At Long Last"
    "Finale"
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