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Bright Star

A bluegrass melodrama brought to life by a vibrant cast and very original score.

Carmen Cusack and Paul Alexander Nolan in a scene from “Bright Star” (Photo credit: Nick Stokes)

Carmen Cusack and Paul Alexander Nolan in a scene from “Bright Star” (Photo credit: Nick Stokes)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

Bright Star, the new bluegrass/country music comedy-drama, rises—just barely—above Hallmark Network romance level thanks to its energetic score by the Hollywood star, Steve Martin (music and book) and singer-songwriter Edie Brickell (lyrics) and an astonishing, charismatic performance of Carmen Cusack in her Broadway debut.

“Inspired by a true event,” the curious plot ping-pongs between the twenties and the mid-forties North Carolina, with confusing speed.  In 1923, Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack), poor, beautiful and smart, has an affair with Jimmy Dobbs (handsome and big-voiced Paul Alexander Nolan), the son of the town’s mayor, Josiah Dobbs (Michael Mulheren, who manages to make his villainous role vividly human).  Their affair leads to complications that are resolved only 22 years later, by which time Alice has had a fine education and has become the much feared and respected editor of a literary journal.

Laura’s parents, played with deep understanding by the estimable Dee Hoty and Stephen Lee Anderson who makes the stiffly moral dad a three-dimensional human being, even though he caused his daughter life-changing anguish.

In 1945, 22-year-old Billy Cane (a thoroughly agreeable A.J. Shively) returns from service in World War II to be with his widowed father, played by Stephen Bogardus (whose performance turns this country guy into a noble, but human figure).  Billy has ambitions as a writer and brings his stories to Alice in Asheville who, along with her two colorful editors, Daryl Ames (Jeff Blumenkrantz, just skirting gay cliché) and Lucy Grant (Emily Padgett, elegantly combining sauciness and sweetness), manages to make a writer out of the naïve country boy.

Helen Elless and A. J. Shively in a scene from “Bright Star” (Photo credit: Nick Stokes)

Helen Elless and A. J. Shively in a scene from “Bright Star” (Photo credit: Nick Stokes)

Billy has a girlfriend, Margo (Hannah Elless displaying a delightfully youthful sensuality) who runs a local bookshop and is Billy’s biggest fan and, eventually, his adoring fiancée.

The stories from the twenties and the forties smash unexpectedly together in a surprising, if unbelievable, way.  (The only hint I can give of the bizarre plot twist is to quote Lady Augusta Bracknell: “A handbag is not a proper mother.”)

The Martin/Brickell score is full of foot-stomping rhythms of which choreographer Josh Rhodes takes full advantage.  The problem is that an evening of bluegrass and banjo strumming can verge on the monotonous, especially when other forms of dance music were prevalent during the forties and hardly touched on here.  Brickell’s lyrics also tend toward the repetitious and trite.  They did manage to write several fine numbers:  “If You Knew My Story,” Alice’s declaration of independence; the title number, “Bright Star,” Billy’s hopes condensed in a song; “Please, Don’t Take Him,” Alice’s plaintively sad emotional outburst; “What Could Be Better,” Jimmy Ray and Alice’s love song; and “At Long Last,” Alice’s chance to explode with happiness.

Eugene Lee’s scenery—moved about the stage, as has become the habit, by the cast—consists of a central cabin that becomes several homes and also a platform for part of the live band.  Other bits—bookcases, desks, lights, etc.—are transported smoothly to change the scenes efficiently.  Lee’s clever backdrop, a large, scalloped wall, is raised and lowered to give the feeling of mountains, clouds and sky.

Carmen Cusack (center) with company of “Bright Star” (Photo credit: Nick Stokes)

Carmen Cusack (center) with company of “Bright Star” (Photo credit: Nick Stokes)

Jane Greenwood’s costumes, as usual, capture not only the period, but each person’s personality and social position.  Japhy Weideman’s lighting helped distinguish the different periods as best as the script would allow.

Walter Bobbie, one of the American musical theatre’s notable and dependable directors, keeps the pace moving without stinting on the drama or comedy.  His first-rate production almost makes the surprising plot devices credible.

Bright Star (through June 26, 2016)

Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.Telecharge.com

Running time:  two hours including one intermission

Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (226 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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