By: Iris Wiener
What would be the show to beat if the overhyped behemoth that is Hamilton was out of the picture? It might very well have been Bright Star, a beautiful, crafty love story that is charming and memorable. With a country-folk score that completely lacks the hokiness that one might expect from a string-heavy show, the music is the true bright star in this collection of foot tapping beats. Though the story is a bit predictable, it is told so delightfully through song that most written missteps are immediately forgiven.
Bright Star marks the addition of “Broadway composer” and “book writer” on Steve Martin’s lengthy resume. However, you wouldn’t recognize his stage debut as being The Jerk’s work. Along with co-writer Edie Brickell, Martin has created a love story with humorous moments, but it is in no way reminiscent of the comedic work for which he is well-known. Instead, fans of Martin’s Steel Canyon Rangers, a bluegrass band with a penchant for laughs amidst the sound of banjos, will recognize the musician’s incomparable imprint on theater’s musical cannon. Bright Star’s sound features the fiddle, violin, viola, mandolin, accordion, autoharp and guitar, all of which build a tempo and flair that is unique to all others on Broadway.
Set in post-World War II North Carolina, a young soldier returns home with the goal of becoming a writer, which lands him at the door of stern literary magazine editor Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack). Her own painful coming of age story takes place in the 1920s, in which a brief romance resulted in a surprise pregnancy. With cleverly designed flashbacks and stories that allude to meaningful connections, audiences are not short-changed when it comes to finding depth in the Broadway musical.
You won’t find any celebrity’s name among the acting credits, but the names that are listed have earned their place tenfold. Paul Alexander Nolan’s 1920s Jimmy Ray Dobbs is a gift to the stage, as he wears his heart and his hypnotizing voice on his sleeve. Carmen Cusack is transcendent, as playful as she is heartbreaking in her delivery of songs such as “If You Knew My Story.” By the finale, no one will be sorry that they experienced her story in the way that she shares it. Michael Mulheren also gives a finely antagonistic performance as Mayor Josiah Dobbs, a character with enough layers to warrant his own sequel. A.J. Shively plays soldier Billy Cane, a man whose slight lack of development in his simplistic, optimistic persona doesn’t allow for much range from Shively.
Eugene Lee’s set is startling in its multi-functioning roles. A character in and of itself, a shell of a cabin strategically rotates around the stage, as it houses the brilliant band. However, the musicians are not glued to their home, and the actors frequently move through the structure in metaphorically creative moments. In a rare treat for a Broadway production, the musicians open the second act with an abbreviated overture, rousing the audience to clap along in delight. Josh Rhodes’ choreography is also stellar, especially when the artists clap and drum in their laps and on their knees to produce a natural, sincerely upbeat tone.
The publisher’s secretary (Emily Padgett) informs Billy that “If you want to be a writer you have to drink alcohol and feel sorry for yourself.” Ironically, it’s clear that Martin and Brickell were enjoying themselves wholeheartedly as they created the thoughtful piece, and audiences will be so uplifted by the show that they won’t be able to imagine a brighter star on Broadway.
Photo Joan Marcus
Bright Star ****
138 West 48th Street
Running Time 2 Hours and 30 Minutes
Opened March 24, 2016