Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Broadway Theater Review: Bright Star

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.

Additional credits:
 Musical Supervision by Peter Asher, Musical Direction and Vocal Arrangements by Rob Berman, Orchestrations by August Eriksmoen, Dialect Coaching by Kate Wilson.

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.

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York in February 2018.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com. She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle. and the Episcopal Actors' Guild.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2018 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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