Bright Star is the new Broadway musical with music, book, and story by Steve Martin; music, lyrics, and story by Edie Brickell*; and directed by Walter Bobbie. rtb was able to get balcony seats for a reasonable price so violaleeblue, mollyT, Mrs. Devereaux, Mrs. D’s friend, and I joined her for the night after opening night. rtb and I talked about the difficulty in seeing a musical after seeing Hamilton. Nothing could live up to that experience. But I do love musicals and I’ve heard Steve Martin’s music and I enjoy his banjo playing and Americana tunes so I thought it would be fun despite my dislike of Edie Brickell. I found Brickell’s lyrics to be too literal sometimes but they weren’t anywhere near as annoying as I thought they’d be. [*Brickell wrote the music and lyrics for two of the songs. The rest of the music is by Martin.]
So how can any Broadway musical compete or survive after a phenomenon like Hamilton? Well, Hair, a rock musical, was the first shot over the bow. Then there was Jesus Christ Superstar, a rock opera that fired another shot. Rent was supposed to bring about the revolution. It never happened. Yes there have been changes but Broadway musicals still follow the form. Even Hamilton. And now here’s a musical with American roots music at the center.
I loved Martin’s music. After intermission the band played a song for the audience and it was delightful. I don’t think the Cort Theatre is made for musicals – I don’t think it’s big enough or has an orchestra pit. The solution – have some of the band on stage. And the rest in both wings up in a loft. The on-stage band (piano, banjo, fiddle, guitar, upright bass) was in a shack that the ensemble pushed and spun around constantly as the scenes changed or just for the hell of it. The musicians came out for a dance scene and one or two musicians came out for other scenes. The band is Rob Berman (piano/accordion/music director/conductor), Bennett Sullivan (banjo/guitar), Kenny Brescia (acoustic and electric guitars), Bobby Baxmeyer (mandolin/guitar), Martha McDonnell (concertmaster/fiddle/violin), David Creswell (viola/violin), Deborah Assael-Migliore (cello), Michael Pearce (bass), Steve Bartosik (drums/percussion), and Anthony De Angelis (keyboard, accordion/autoharp/associate conductor). When I read that Peter Asher was the music supervisor, my first thought was, “It can’t be!” But then I read the bios in Playbill and there it was – Peter & Gordon, producer, and head of A&R for Apple (the Beatles’ Apple Records not Steve Jobs’ Apple). Steve Martin keeps very nice company. I was also thrilled to see Nevin Steinberg was the sound designer. He did the sound design for Hamilton, which was brilliant in that it wasn’t LOUD and annoying. He did another great job for Bright Star.
Bright Star is based on a true story. It’s a Hallmark movie on stage. Or maybe a Lifetime movie although those are more women in peril. Yeah, it was a Hallmark movie. I knew what was going to happen as soon as Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack) agreed to see Billy Cane (AJ Shively) even though, as editor of The Asheville Southern Journal, she never sees writers in person. Alice reads Billy’s work and critiques it and encourages him. It’s 1945 and Billy is home from the war. He’s left his small town in North Carolina to make it in the big city. He’s left Margo Crawford (Hannah Elless), who is madly in love with him and the bookstore owner, at home. After Billy’s visit, Alice reminisces about her life growing up in another small town in North Carolina in the early 1920s and her romance with Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Paul Alexander Nolan), who is the son of Mayor Josiah Dobbs (Michael Mulheren). The story moves back and forth between the 1940s and 1920s until it all comes together in a (supposedly) surprise ending that had many in the audience oohing and aahing. You could feel how emotional the audience became at the happy ending.
Some of the choreography felt a little rough. Since the show had only been open one night plus the previews, I’m guessing that more time will smooth out those edges. Other times there were moves that made me smile – especially some business with a fedora. Choreography was by Josh Rhodes, who kept the ensemble moving. They were in constant motion, whether it was moving the shack, moving the bookshelves into place, moving Alice’s office furniture into place, or dancing in a bar or a barn.
The scenic design was by Eugene Lee, who made good use of the small stage. There was the shack, which was open on three sides. The closed front was used as the childhood homes of either Alice or Billy. Curtains with curved bottoms were the backdrop and signified mountains. A bridge running across near the top of the proscenium arch was a fun surprise when a small train would run by. Metal poles leaning against each side of the stage performed the function of a door to the bookstore or the Journal offices. The stage was full of energy and always changing.
Costume design by Jane Greenwood was on point. Even the band in the shack was dressed for the time period. Some of the best moments were when Alice would reminisce and as she went from one time period to another she would change her clothes on stage. It was slick and helped to bring the audience along.
Despite the melodrama there were a lot of funny moments in the show. Daryl Ames (Jeff Blumenkrantz) and Lucy Grant (Emily Padgett), workers at the Journal, got a lot of the funniest lines. There was one joke by Jimmy Ray about a woman being unacceptable as a wife because she played the banjo. You could hear Steve Martin winking.
One jarring thing was the all-white cast. In this day and age you expect more color-blindness in casting a musical – especially in the ensemble. I understand that in representing those time periods in the south it could have added another layer to the actions of the main cast but I think the audience could have gone along with it, especially with the ensemble.
This is Cusack’s Broadway debut and she was wonderful. Especially in her show-stopping number in Act II. Mulheren was properly villainous and at the curtain call he even cocked his ear towards the stage to hear the boos. Everyone else in the cast was very good. The rest of the cast is Daddy Cane (Stephen Bogardus), Max (Max Chernin), Florence (Sarah Jane Shanks), Edna (Sandra DeNise), Daddy Murphy (Stephen Lee Anderson), Mama Murphy (Dee Hoty), Stanford Adams (William Youmans), Dr. Norquist (Michael X Martin), Stationmaster (Patrick Cummings), County Clerk (Allison Briner-Dardenne) and Ensemble (Allison Briner-Dardenne, Max Chernin, Patrick Cummings, Sandra DeNise, Michael X Martin, Tony Roach, Sarah Jane Shanks, and William Youmans).
So, despite my reservations, I had an enjoyable evening and, although it’s difficult to recommend a Broadway show because of the outrageous prices, I’d say if you can swing it, it’s a good show to see.
By Carene Lydia Lopez