There’s no brighter star lighting up L.A. stages this month and next than the dazzling Carmen Cusack, reprising her Tony-nominated star turn as Alice Murphy in Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s Bright Star, a musical so stunningly staged and gorgeous to the ear that it’s easy to go easy on its Stella Dallas/Imitation Of Life-style soap.

38-year-old Asheville, NC literary journal editor Alice has come a long way from the small town girl whose teenage romance with Jimmy Ray (Patrick Cummings), scion son of power-wielding small town mayor Josiah Dobbs (Jeff Austin), turned a teenage cockeyed optimist into the hard-edged all-business adult she is today.

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 (David Atkinson) that the soldier boy’s beloved mother has been “taken away” by a midnight visitor, his sorrow at her death somewhat tempered by the attentions of pert local librarian Margo (Maddie Shea Baldwin).

Since the much-renowned Asheville Southern Journal seems as good a place as any to jump-start a career in creative writing, Billy heads off to the biggish city, where he makes it past editor Alice’s assistants Daryl (Jeff Blumenkrantz) and Lucy (Kaitlyn Davidson) 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).

Though said letter fails to fool seen-it-all Alice, Billy’s chutzpah does, and wonder of wonders there’s one of his stories that she actually kind of sort of likes, leaving our handsome young hero hopeful that he may one day see his name in the prestigious literary journal and providing Alice with quite possibly her next published writer.

Already a feel-good crowd-pleaser in its 2014 Old Globe World Premiere, Bright Star has gone from diamond-in-the-rough to brightly polished gem, a textbook example of how much a creative team can learn from what used to be called an “out-of-town tryout.”

Time-travel back and forth between the 1920s and ‘40s no longer proves confusing thanks to a brand new opening number (Alice’s autobiographical “If You Knew My Story”) that establishes the “present-day” time frame, an inventive clothes-changing sequence that makes it clear we’ll be seeing Alice both as she is today and as she once was, and casting a pair of leading men easily distinguished one from the other.

A refined book has cut Alice’s guilt-ridden sister Dora and made a particular plot twist a whole lot less easy to spot a mile away, and choreography I described as only “occasional” now plays a more major role in director Walter Bobbie’s supremely imaginative staging.

Though Bright Star’s rather pedestrian lyrics remain the show’s weaker element (“She’s gone. She’s gone.” “A man’s gotta do, what a man’s gotta do, when a man’s gotta do, what he’s got to.” “You can’t take him. He’s my baby. You can’t take my baby boy.”), the melodies Martin and Brickell have written are blessed with one bluegrass hook after another and the six songs added since Bright Star’s Old Globe debut are among its best.

An inspired Bobbie transitions 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 vibrant life by Devin Archer, Audrey Cardwell (Edna), Max Chernin (Max), Robin De Lano (County Clerk), David Kirk Grant (Dr. Norquist), Kevin McMahon (Stanford Adams), Alessa Neeck (Florence), and Michael Starr, adding up to an ever-present North Carolinian Greek chorus who observe, participate, and occasionally even pull the strings while dancing to Josh Rhodes’s mesmerizing choreography, as original as Broadway choreography gets.

Cumming’s hunk-next-door Jimmy Ray and Shively’s boyishly peppy charmer of a Billy deliver the big-voiced leading man goods, Baldwin is a vivacious treat as Margo, Stephen Lee Anderson (Daddy Murphy), Allison Briner-Dardenne (Mama Murphy), and Atkinson makes for a trio loving, well-meaning parents, andAustin’s Daddy Dearest of a father disposes of unwanted impediments to match Broadway’s most dastardly villains.

As for Blumenkrantz and Davidson’s sassy New Yorkers, the duo steal every scene they’re in, their characters benefiting from the reassigned “Another Round,” Bright Star’s politically incorrect song-and-dance celebration of alcoholism and all its delights.

Still, this is Cusack’s star vehicle all the way and she is simply magnificent as both lovestruck, heartbroken teen and life-hardened but still vibrant adult, and those sensationally rich Cusack pipes are alone worth the price of admission.

Onstage musicians/townspeople Eric Davis, musical director Anthony De Angelis, Wayne Fugate, George Guthrie, Martha McDonnell, and Skip Ward earn their own cheers as do Jane Greenwood’s pitch-perfect period costumes, Tom Watson’s equally fine hair and wigs, Japhy Weidman’s striking lighting, and Nevin Steinberg’s precisely tuned sound design.

Rob Berman is supervising musical director and vocal arranger and Peter Asher is music supervisor, with additional kudos due August Eriksmoen (orchestrations), Edward Pierce (scenic design supervision), Seymour Red Press (music coordinator), and Lee Wilkins (associate choreographer).

Casting is by Howard Charpakov, CSA (original New York casting), Callieri Casting (additional New York casting), and Michael Donovan, CSA (Los Angeles casting). Kelly Baker, dance captain/fight captain Richard Gatta, Donna Louden, and assistant dance captain Robert Pieranunzi are swings.

Anjee Nero is production stage manager and Kirsten Parker and Susie Walsh are stage managers.

Masterfully tweaked for Broadway, the musical I first discovered in San Diego burns brighter still in L.A. Filled with humanity and humor and heartbreak and hope, Bright Star had me in the palm of its celestial hand from Carmen Cusack’s first hello.

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Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N Grand Ave, Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
October 20, 2017
Photos: Craig Schwartz




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