Those of a certain age will remember Steve Martin’s 1978 novelty song, “King Tut.” And those of another certain age will likely wax poetic about their college days listening to indie band Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians. Brickell’s 1988 album, Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars, went double platinum and her career—both with the band and solo—soared until she made a decision to step away from the limelight to raise her children with husband Paul Simon. Martin (post-Saturday Night Live) has spent decades as the goofy comedian in such hits as Pennies From Heaven, All of Me, Father of the Bride, and dozens more, but also has established himself as a notable playwright and musician.
The longtime friends reconnected several years back and recorded the bluegrass album Love Has Come For You (2013) and its title single won Grammy Awards for the pair.
In the meantime, Brickell had noticed a newspaper article about a baby that survived being tossed from a train—a story so horrific but filled with hope that she couldn’t get it out of her mind. The songwriting team began to explore a fictional account of what may have led to such a drastic outcome, and Bright Star was born.
Set between 1923 rural North Carolina and Asheville 22 years later, the story follows the journey of spitfire Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack), her relationship with Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Paul Alexander Nolan), son of a local politician, and the tragic circumstances that unfold. The musical seamlessly jumps back and forth between the two eras, the latter showcasing Alice as a successful editor at The Asheville Southern Journal, where Billy Cane (A.J. Shively), a young man recently returned from the war, hopes to get published.
Martin and Brickell’s score is a celebration of American folk music, filled with soaring string arrangements for fiddle, banjo, guitar, and mandolin—all beautifully arranged by orchestrator August Eriksmoen. In true musical theater fashion, the music carries along the plot line as it fluidly wafts among the decades, but it also offers an unusual ease that celebrates the unique sounds of bluegrass.
At its core, Ms. Cusack delivers a beautifully honest performance, both as the young country girl forced into a decision that will haunt her for life, as well as the tightly wound editor that she grows into. Her voice—at times as delicate as flowering dogwood, and at others as raw as the wheels on a locomotive—tells the story of countless women across our country (both then and now) who have been forced to make the ultimate sacrifice.
As her young lover, Mr. Nolan is equally formidable, perhaps more convincing as the younger Jimmy Ray, while Mr. Shively provides an endearing snapshot of post-war optimism.
Director Walter Bobbie (Chicago) and choreographer Josh Rhodes (Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella) guide the cast through Eugene Lee’s ever-changing set with a sense of ease and purpose. The ensemble’s pedestrian movement references the spirit of Frantic Assembly (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) then carries the sweeping story to its climatic end.
In terms of style, Bright Star’s final scenes may push the suspension of disbelief in a way that doesn’t necessarily serve the greater story. Not so much in terms of plot, but rather, in terms of storytelling, which opts for a silly flashback sequence that had the audience chuckling instead of riveted. But one dissonant chord cannot deny the show’s genuine charm.
Bright Star delivers a unique voice in a season full of heavy hitters. Hopefully it will find its audience and continue to shine bright.
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