Some of the most gorgeous songs I’ve heard in a new musical plus a bevy of equally memorable performances bode well for the post-World Premiere future of Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s Bright Star despite an “original story” so reminiscent of this or that 1930s/40s Hollywood weeper that audience members may find themselves convinced they’re watching the musical stage adaptation of an oldtime Barbara Stanwyck/Claudette Colbert flick. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
Like Stella Dallas or Imitation Of Life’s Bea Pullman before her, 38-year-old Asheville, NC literary journal editor Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack) has a secret, in Alice’s case a child born out of wedlock in the early 1920s and taken from her wrong-side-of-the-tracks arms by the baby’s paternal grandfather, power-wielding small town mayor Josiah Dobbs (Wayne Duvall), the father of Alice’s scion boyfriend Jimmy Ray (Wayne Alan Wilcox). Not surprisingly, the loss of said baby has since then turned a teenage cockeyed optimist into a hard-edged all-business adult.
Simultaneously in the 1945 present, local G.I. Billy Cane (A.J. Shively) has returned from WWII with dreams of literary stardom, though first he must recover from news delivered by his folksy Daddy (Stephen Bogardus) that the soldier boy’s beloved mother has been taken away by a midnight visitor. (Any momentary hope that Momma has merely run off with a lover is quickly squashed by the realization that her late-night visitor was indeed Death Not Taking A Holiday.)
Since the much-renowned Asheville Southern Journal seems as good a place as any to jumpstart a career in creative writing, Billy heads off to the biggish city, where he makes it past editor Alice’s assistants—prissy Daryl and no-nonsense Lucy (Jeff Hiller and Kate Loprest in roles Franklin Pangborn and Eve Arden would have played in Golden Age Hollywood) to meet the lady herself and impress her with his storytelling promise (and a brand-new letter of recommendation from long-ago deceased Thomas Wolfe).
Time-travel back and forth between the 1920s and ‘40s proves rather a bit confusing in Bright Star’s first half-hour or so with only costumes and hairstyles to distinguish one decade from the other, and having Wilcox and Shively look so much alike that they could be related adds to the confusion since it’s the same Cusack playing young and older opposite both.
Still, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to eventually put past and present together and realize that 22-year-old Billy may share a connection with the once 16-year-old Alice (you do the math), leading to as inevitable a second act as I’ve seen in any play or musical in recent memory.
And yet wonder of wonders, though any audience member with an ounce of imagination or logic or common sense can see what’s coming a mile away, predictability matters surprisingly little compared to the satisfaction of sad-and-happy tears shed by folks on either side of the fourth wall.
That’s not to say that Martin’s book couldn’t stand improvement. It could, and will need a good deal of tweaking if the Bright Star creative team wishes to see their Broadway wishes come true, starting with finding a way to make audiences not feel they can guess what’s going to happen next.
What is almost absolutely right the way things are are Bright Star’s sensational songs, a couple dozen of them in all, and if Brickell’s lyrics can be a tad too obvious, the melodies Martin and she have written are blessed with one hook after another, and it matters not if bluegrass or country isn’t your thing; Rob Berman’s expert musical direction along with August Eriksmoen’s orchestrations and Rob Berman’s vocal arrangements (the legendary Peter Asher is music supervisor) give Bright Star’s songs enough of a Broadway pop feel to overcome any possible aversion to the genre.
Director Walter Bobbie’s staging is as inspired as stagings get, transitioning effortlessly from scene to scene on Eugene Lee’s expansive set as onstage musicians exit Lee’s mobile, multipurpose “bandstand” to stroll and strum amongst the actors, making them one with townspeople brought to singing (and occasionally dancing,) life by five-star triple-threats Allison Briner, Max Chernin, Leah Horowitz, Joe Jung, Ashley Robinson, Sarah Jane Shanks, and Scott Wakefield, their dance moves choreographed with abundant flair by Broadway’s Josh Rhodes.
Principal players don’t get any better than Bright Star’s visitors from New York, most importantly the extraordinary Cusack, whose definitive portrayal of South Pacific’s Nellie Forbush won her a Scenie as Touring Production Performance Of The Year. Not only does Cusack have some of the most uniquely gorgeous pipes in contemporary musical theater, her matching acting chops make young-and-older Alice one of the most compelling characters you’re likely to see in a musical anytime soon.
A trio of supporting players are particular standouts, beginning with the wonderful Libby Winters as Alice’s guilt-ridden sister Dora, whose “Another Round” (Bright Star’s politically incorrect celebration of alcoholism and all its delights) proves a comic-relief showstopper. As for Hiller and Loprest, they play their iconic Hollywood sidekick roles with such fabulous flair, they could easily anchor a Bright Star spinoff on their own.
Lookalikes Shively and Wilcox and the lovely Hannah Elless as Billy’s sweetheart Margo have romantic-lead gifts in abundance, while Stephen Lee Anderson (Daddy Murphy), Bogardus, and recent Scenie winner Patti Cohenour (Mama Murphy) are equally splendid in older roles. As for the deliciously dastardly Josiah, Duvall chews scenery and flings travel bags with the best of Hollywood and Broadway villains.
Lulu Lloyd and Greg Roderick are swings.
In addition to scenic designer Lee, Bright Star benefits from one of the finest design teams New York City has to offer San Diego, from Jane Greenwood’s marvelous period costumes to Japhy Weidman’s stunning lighting to Nevin Steinberg’s pitch-perfect sound design.
Lee Wilkins is associate choreographer. Angee Nero is stage manager. Casting is by Howie Cherpakov, CSA.
Despite a book still in need of work, Bright Star ends up earning audience cheers and tears, along with a standing ovation I’m guessing greets every performance. Been-there-done-that as its story may be, the latest from the Old Gobe is a feel-good crowd-pleaser if there ever was one.
Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego.
October 7, 2014
Photos: Joan Marcus