|Carmen Cusack in "Bright Star" at the Kennedy Center. Photo: Joan Marcus
Star Doesn’t Shine as Brightly as We’d Like for This Wholesome Tale
By Lauren Yarger
A Bright Star arrives on Broadway this season – a wholesome tale set to country music written by Steve Martin. Yes, that Steve Martin.
He collaborates with music writer Edie Brickell, with whom he won a Grammy for Best American Roots Song for “Love Has Come for You” who writes the lyrics and created the story with Martin, who writes the book inspired by a true event.
Set in 1920s and 1940s North Carolina, Bright Star follows the story of successful magazine editor Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack) and a young vet, Billy Cane (A.J. Shively ), who has just returned from the war and wants to get a story published in her Asheville Southern Journal. It won’t be easy – this editor once made Ernest Hemingway cry. But he’s determined, despite interference from Daryl Ames (a very funny Jeff Blumenkrantz) who has his own ambitions of being published. Billy is ready for his life to start – to follow his very own bright star (yup, those are the lyrics).
His father, Daddy Cane (Stephen Bogardus) – yup, Daddy, that’s his name – and book shop clerk Margot Crawford (Hannah Elless) encourage him, but secretly Margot wishes Billy would notice that she’s grown up while he was gone and now is a woman who wants something more from their relationship.
Meanwhile, in flashbacks, we discover that Alice wasn’t always the uptight, hardened woman we have seen. Once she was young, barefoot and free – and in love with Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Paul Alexander Nolan), son of the town’s formidable Mayor, Josiah Dobbs (Michael Mulheren) who has plans for his son to marry money – not this poor girl who finds herself pregnant.
He influences Alice’s father, Daddy (yup…) Murphy (Stephen Lee Anderson), to sign the baby over for adoption, despite Alice’s pleas and the objections of Mama Murphy. OK, I am done “yupping” over these name choices. This role, though not very developed is given some depth by Broadway vet Dee Hoty.
The time transitions are not entirely clear at first. Director Walter Bobbie doesn’t really use the aids of lighting or sound design (by Japhy Weideman and Nevin Steinberg, respectively) here, but Costumer Jane Greenwood does change the period dress to help clue us in. Hair and Wig Design by Tom Watson assists.
Mostly it’s a pretty predictable plot without much happening, though we often find ourselves wondering why the townsfolk are dancing and stomping around while a family is eating at their table. The choreography by Josh Rhodes is incomprehensible throughout. From the opening number, which was so contrived with characters stepping out into spotlight to tell their stories that I wondered whether I had wandered into a high school production by mistake, to a little toy train that chugs across a truss at the top of the stage (set design is by Eugene Lee), this musical feels like an unpolished early draft that has potential, but needs work.
The main topic of conversation at intermission was whether anyone in the theater really didn’t know how the story would end. The show does have one wonderful moment, however, when the mayor decides the fate of Jimmy Ray and Alice’s baby. It is chilling– with lighting and sound effects to make your blood curdle. I couldn’t help but think that if this level of drama and staging could have been harnessed throughout the story, the musical would have been less ho-hum.
Instead, Brickell’s score, which includes a ballad or two and the plucky and uplifting “Sun’s Gonna Shine” is pleasant, but not very memorable (and the lyrics are too simple). If you are expecting humor because of Martin’s comic background, think again. It’s pretty cut and dried except for a few lines at the climax of the plot, which had me laughing where I didn’t think I should be.
I salute the idea of putting a wholesome musical with a positive message on Broadway. I just wish the packaging on this two-hour, 30 minute offering was wrapped more neatly.
Bright Star plays at the Cort Theater, 138 West 48th St., NYC. Performances are Tuesday and Thursday at 7 pm; Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Wednesday and Saturday at 2 pm; Sunday at 3 pm. Tickets are $45 - $145: www.BrightStarMusical.com; 212-239-6200.
Ensemble: Maddie Shea Baldwin, Allison Briner-Dardenne, Max Chernin, Patrick Cummings, Sandra DeNise, Richard Gatta, Lizzie Klemperer, Michael X. Martin, William Michals, Tony Roach, Sarah Jane Shanks and William Youmans
-- No specific notes. This is pretty wholesome, but there is some more mature content, so I would say PG13.