If you insist on edge in your musicals, Bright Star is not for you. On the other hand, if you care to spend a couple of hours in the mid 1940s and the early 1920s in rural areas of North Carolina with a stage full of warm and caring friends, centered around a woman who tells us up front that, “If you knew her story,” you’d be foolish to pass up Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s new country musical Bright Star, now playing at the Cort Theatre.
It certainly reached out to me. Martin and Brickell, far more famous in other areas of entertainment than they are in the Broadway arena, have come up with the tale of a very lovely girl who loves a very lovely guy but her well meaning but oh-so-stupid parents destroy everything that’s good between them for such very selfish reasons of their own. I won’t give you the particulars but I found their story engrossing, entertaining, and very moving.
No, it hasn’t the kind of score that makes it a classic. The music is lively, and very easy on the ear, but the fiddle and the banjo can only go so far to interestingly cover some twenty songs, though August Ericksmoen’s orchestrations serve them well. Though the lyrics are often on the simple side, the score offers all the principals and a very gifted ensemble plenty of opportunity to shine. I thought the melodies embellished the story more than the lyrics did, but the story itself, though somewhat predictable, is neatly told, very well crafted, and wends its way to a very endearing conclusion.
But there is so much more. A cast of smashing players has been assembled, beginning with the beguiling Carmen Cusack making a tremendous Broadway debut. Last year it was Jesse Mueller who zoomed into stardom with one role in Beautiful; this season Ms. Cusack repeats that difficult task. She plays “Alice Murphy” as a young woman in the first throes of romantic love, and the same woman twenty years later when she’s evolved into a very different sort of woman. Her character’s journey is one on which she begins as a sweet and sassy small town girl and it takes her to the big city where she transforms into a bright and attractive important literary agent. A young soldier returning from the war intrigues her with his writing skills and slowly she becomes involved in his life, which allows her to visit his family in a small town where intriguing overlaps with her own past life reveal themselves. It’s all ultra-romantic, and though somewhat predictable to some, I found it compelling and moving and complete.
It always astonishes me to learn again and again that there is an abundance of talent waiting in the wings for its moment to take center stage. Director Walter Bobbie has taken these gifted performers playing southern town folks and staged them artfully so that we are constantly refreshed by the scenes and the transitions that bind them together in a never ending flow.
“Way Back In The Day,” “Whoa Momma,” “Sun’s Gonna Shine,” all of them amiable but familiar, are elevated to magical heights by the invention of the staging by Mr. Bobbie and his choreographer Josh Rhodes, who did similarly nice work with two other small musicals, It Shoulda Been You and First Date. Together, further enriched by the simple design concept of veteran Eugene Lee, they have given us a lighthearted romp of a musical that can embrace the most romantic moments that are solid enough to support the dramatic twists involved in the solid book of this musical.
Carmen Cusack and Paul Alexander Nolan manage to convey golden youth and early middle age maturity with equal ease. A.J. Shively and Hannah Elless bring good looks, lovely voices, and loose-limbed bodies that can dance up a storm. Steven Bogardus and Dee Hoty are two veterans who have grown into attractive mature performers who still register strongly in supporting roles as parents.
Michael Mulherin and Stephen Lee Anderson bring power and presence to character roles. Jeff Blumenkrantz and Emily Padgett bring goofiness and fun to the proceedings in the best tradition of the late great George Abbott musicals. There isn’t a lemon in this boatload of performing talent that keep Bright Star afloat all evening long. And Walter Bobbie has blended them all together into a refreshing smoothie of a musical.
Bright Star joins the recent revival of She Loves Me to give us hope – as the ’15-’16 season races to its conclusion – that Broadway can and will still accommodate musicals with heart and a willingness to share joy with what I believe is a hungry and undernourished audience. I’ve noticed that I’ve been leaving the theatre lately feeling the glow that only an affirmative musical like Bright Star can instill, as in days of old.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, plus an intermission.
‘Bright Star’ at The Kennedy Center reviewed by Robert Michael Oliver on DCMetroTheaterArts.