A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
True to the bluegrass genre's American roots, all three of these shows are set in the South. But unlike Robber Bridegrom and Southern Comfort which are adaptations (the first based on a Eudora Welty novella, the latter on a documentary film), Bright Star is an original concept which is pretty rare in today's risk-averse Broadway world.
Welcome as a start-from-scratch musical is, librettos using already tested source material are not a bad thing as most stunningly proved by the theater's major game changer inspired by Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton proves — as well as golden era hits like South Pacific, Fiddler On the Roof and She Loves Me, all of which are currently enjoying renewed success on Broadway.
What Martin and Brickell have concocted for Bright Star is unlikely to become part of the canon of ground breaking musicals with memorably meaningful stories and lyrics. But, though apparently inspired by an actual case about a lost baby, it is their own concoction. And it's chockablock with assets to make for an enjoyable, feel good two hours.
So give in to Bright Star's charms, as i did, and let the nitpickers complain. Yes, it's headed from to get-go to an inevitably happy ending that relies on some pretty far-fetched contrivances. Yes, the 1923 setting and situation from which everything develops seems patterned after an eventually flourishing pulp magazine style built around a sin, suffer and redemptive repent formula that first saw life as a bi-weekly called I Confess. And yes, the neatly resolved aftermath of Bright Star's detour into a melodramatic Southern gothic twist can be guessed at even before Alice Murphy sings "The sun is gonna shine again." But with Carmen Cusack as Alice, this is your chance to see a-star-is-born Broadway debut.
Cusack beautiful voice does wonders for the lively and quite lovely bluegrass score. She's also a good enough actress to believably inhabit Alice's teeming with life 16-year-old persona as well as the powerful 38-year-old editor whose idea of a well-spent evening is not a party but to "cozy up to a few unnecessary adverbs and then cut their heads." Thus the show's title could easily apply to its main character instead of the title song with its lyrics that sum up the young world war II veteran Billy Crane's (A. J. Shively) dream of a writing career.
In fact, with an "s" added to that title's second word, and it would as aptly describe the rest of the cast who are part of this very bright North Carolina girl's story of a love affair that ends badly to the editorship of a distinguished literary magazine. Chief among these are the characters in Alice's home town of Zebulon: Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Paul Alexaner Nolan) and his bossy, power-happy dad Joshua Dobbs (Michael Mulhern), who as the mayor of Zebulon, looks down on Alice's bible-thumping. . .Alice's equally controlling Daddy (Stephen Lee Anderson) and her more understanding Mama (Dee Hoty).
Before Billy Crane and Alice, the powerful editor meet in Asheville, there's a detour to Hayes Creek, a small town close to Zebulon, for Billy to reunite with his devoted and nurturing Daddy (Stephen Bogardus) and plant the seeds for a second love story with Margo (Hannah Elless), the local book store proprietor who's always supported his love for reading and writing.
When the action moves to the offices of The Asheville Southern Journal, we also meet Alice's assistants Daryl Ames and Lucy Grant (Jeff Blumenkrantz and Emily Padgett), to add a de rigueur comic touch.
Moving between the numerous then and now locations is no small feat. Consequently broadening the the title's meaning also applies to the way director Walter Bobbie and his designers have skillfully and fluidly done so with all manner of gliding and sliding props, most moved by the terrifically versatile ensemble. Particularly effective is set designer Eugene Lee's wooden cabin that most of the time houses the musicians (though some of the 10-member banjo, fiddle, accordion and piano playing virtuosos are positioned above the sides of the stage). Their accompaniment for solos, duets and foot stomping ensemble numbers is very much a show highlight.
The ensemble's constant movement of props is saved from becoming too much of a good thing, by Josh Rhodes superb, often poetic choreographhy which, abetted by Japhy Weidman's atmospheric lighting, beautifully punctuates the many time and place shifts with both shadowy, quiet dancing, and livelier, foot-stomping production numbers will make you wish you could get up on that stage and join in.
Bright Star seems to have lost about 15-minutes since it's last presentation at Washington's Kennedy Center — maybe on the amusing advice given to Billy Cane by Alice. If Alice the editor could step off stage to review the New York production, this would no doubt please her. And while she might still complain as she does about Billy's first story that the show is "as purple as a baboon's butt" some of choreographer Rhodes' exuberant do-si-do numbers might well make her, like you, wish you could jump up on that stage to join the foot-stomping fun.