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Brighter than the Sun

A musical of remembrance about a beloved grandmother told with emotional honesty.

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Julieta Berry and the Cast of “Brighter than the Sun” at 312 W. 36th Theatre (Photo credit: Courtesy of the production)

[avatar user=”Scotty Bennett” size=”96″ align=”left”] Scotty Bennett, Critic[/avatar]

There are times in everyone’s life when we pause and reflect on something that has been but is no longer. Age is not a determinate of the act of remembrance; it is something that starts from the time we are very young, “Daddy, do you remember when…” or “Mommy, let’s go to that place we were at last week.” Or sometimes it is just a quiet, reflective moment as a child looks at a picture or hears a bird chirp. Being able to share those moments with the emotion that was attached to the original memory takes skill and sensitivity because sometimes those memories are not happy ones.

Brighter Than The Sun, written and composed by Collin Hendley, is a musical of remembrance about his beloved grandmother told with an emotional honesty that is at times joyful and, at other moments, sad. It takes us from her childhood to her death based on excerpts from the diaries she kept her whole life and the stories she told to her dearest grandchild, Collin Hendley. While some songs work well within the play’s structure, others do not integrate with the story. They tend to provide a melodic interlude to the play’s overall structure rather than being an integral part of the story. There is enough dramatic action and singing to make the play worth seeing, but don’t expect it to be a show bound for Broadway, at least not in its present form.

Abby Turner and Collin Headley in a scene from the new musical “Brighter than the Sun” at 312 W. 36th Theatre (Photo credit: Courtesy of the production)

The show opens with a prologue set in the home of Bobbie Strickland O’Quinn, Hendley’s beloved grandmother. As he moves through the living room of her house, he lingers at a piano. The cast and ensemble slowly fill the stage, and Hendley comes to the center and speaks to the audience. This opening monologue introduces us to his memory of his grandmother and sets the outline and tone for the play and how she impacted his life.

The opening production number gives an energetic and tuneful introduction to the musical spirit of the play. The cast and ensemble sing the titular song “Brighter Than The Sun,” with the lead vocals sung by Abby Turner in the role of Bobbie Strickland, who solidly embodies the character. The opening number also introduces her husband and Hendley’s grandfather Russell O’Quinn, skillfully portrayed by Matthew Harper Stevenson. These two characters are central to Hendley’s remembrance, with Bobbie being the guiding light.

The story starts in May of 1967. Some members of the Strickland household are introduced in a scene concerning a matter of spoiled watermelon sold to the local grocery store. We meet Myrtice Strickland, Bobbie’s mother, played by Emily O’Leary, and Jimmy Ray Strickland, her sisters, embodied by Julieta Berry. The remainder of the Strickland family, Arthur, the father, played with the requisite intensity of an abusive alcoholic by Dennis Taylor, and Jerry, the son, solidly played with Ofer Gordon, are introduced in a later scene. Their interactions show the family’s dysfunctional nature and how that influenced Bobbie’s choices in the direction she would take with her life.

Jared Goodwin, Amber Mawande-Spytek, Matthew Harper Stevenson and Abby Turner in a scene from the new musical “Brighter than the Sun” at 312 W. 36th Theatre (Photo credit: Courtesy of the production)

Overall, the songs in the show tend to be well-integrated with the storyline but lack distinction, with a few exceptions. In the first act, “A Song of Maybes,” is a duet sung by Bobbie and Russell, establishing the depth of attraction leading to their strong marriage. It is one of the strongest songs in the show, well-integrated with its overall theme. In the second act, “Life Tastes Sweeter,” a duet sung by Amber Mawande-Spytek as the character Sis Young and Jared Goodwin as her husband Howard Young works with the same relationship-defining qualities as “A Song of Maybes.” Mawande-Spytek later sings “I Will Bloom Again” with power and interpretive skill. In both these cases, her presentation is superlative.

Hendley is solid in his performance as the narrator of his and his grandmother’s story. His presentation commands attention without demand, smoothly and effortlessly focusing on the words being spoken. He has created a show with a strong storyline but needs a rework of the structure. Although his narrational guidance is well-written and beautifully presented, it adds too much exposition when perhaps the information could be dramatized.

Similarly, the show needs more songs in the second act. The energy established in the first act falls flat in the second, with too much dialogue between the few songs. The choreography is integrated well into the story, but some of the production numbers are uneven, although this may be an issue with the venue. The show needs and deserves a much bigger stage.

Caroline Leggett’s direction was solid in delivering the heart of the play. She also provides effective costume design. Hannah Tarr’s scenic design works well, given the small venue. It will be interesting to see how she handles the design when the show moves to a larger venue. The lighting is skillfully designed and executed by Samantha Weiser. Aiden Wells expertly guides the small band.

Brighter Than The Sun (through January 21, 2024)

Greener Pastures Theatre Collective

312 W 36th St Theatre, 312 West 36th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit https://brighterthanthesun.ticketspice.com/brighter-than-the-sun-a-new-musical

Running time: two hours and five minutes including one intermission

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About Scotty Bennett (80 Articles)
Scotty Bennett is a retired businessman who has worn many hats in his life, the latest of which is theater critic. For the last twelve years he has been a theater critic and is currently the treasurer of the American Theatre Critics Association and a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics. He has been in and around the entertainment business for most of his life. He has been an actor, director, and stage hand. He has done lighting, sound design, and set building. He was a radio disk jockey and, while in college ran a television studio and he even knows how to run a 35mm arc lamp projector.

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