Trouble and happiness tend to walk hand in hand because liars sometimes make good story tellers. Making its pre-Broadway debut with a whole lot of trouble, happiness, and one hell of a good story, Bright Star, premieres in the Eisenhower Theatre of The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts this holiday season and sets the soul ablaze with a backwoods tale of love and truth in a time the world has nearly forgotten. Directed by Walter Bobbie, this new musical with Music, Book, and Story written by Steve Martin and Music, Lyrics, and Story written by Edie Brickell, this heartwarming tale of young love in its prime will tug ever so gently at the heartstrings and keep your toes tapping in the audience to a sprightly folksy score.
The new show’s problems are minor, nothing a few tweaks and minor adjustments can’t correct before it launches to the Great White Way. While Martin and Brickell’s story is filled with heart and soul, there are places throughout where the emotional connection of what’s happening doesn’t quite reach the audience, choosing to float loftily along the surface rather than delving into the deeper potential that the plotline and musical score would indicate. A few of Martin and Brickell’s lyrical choices are ill-fitted to the emotional drive of certain numbers as well, the prime example being “Please, Don’t Take Him” where the anguished outcry of the Alice and Mama Murphy characters fall short in their lyrical delivery because the words utilized short-change the pathos of the moment. Taking a comic, though realistic approach, to the twist ending encountered just a few scenes before the show’s finale also cheapens the emotional catharsis, which until that point had been on a pristine and steady build.
Martin and Brickell do, however, craft a rather ingenious story, one that for the most part burbles with heart. The dueling timelines are seamlessly juxtaposed against one another, which displays Martin and Brickell’s ability as writers to bend the fabric of time as we know it into something glorious and beautiful upon the stage. The characters are crafted with a rich and dynamic depth, particularly that of Alice Murphy, and the juxtaposition of her in the past reality versus the present is striking.
Director Walter Bobbie’s staging of the show is another awe-inspiring element of this new musical that is well worth noting. Lining the players as observers along the functional rotation of Scenic Designer Eugene Lee’s rustic mobile structures brings a sense of storytelling and narrative to the foreground of the performance. This technique enhances the ease of flow in the show’s overall momentum. There are, however, moments of transition— facilitated by Josh Rhodes’ choreography— that feel unsynchronized with the music. Ensemble members spin structures and wend their way in and out of scenes as they change but their movements are unmatched to the rhythm of the song. This approach is reminiscent to the fully incorporated movement used in musicals like Once, but misses the mark in places making it somewhat less successful.
Because of Lee’s simplistic yet highly functional design, the transition between time periods as well as location happen almost seamlessly throughout the performance, which keeps the audience fully engaged with the earnest emotions that arise in the show’s plot. Adding to the mesmerizing magic of this basic design, Lighting Designer Japhy Weideman and Sound Designer Nevin Steinberg cultivate authentic atmospheres in both the past and present time streams. Weideman handles emotionally charged lighting exceptionally well and utilizes keen knowledge of optical illusion to execute a pressing moment that arrives as a conclusion to the first act.
Though the supporting characters are minor in their existence, their plot functionality exists without artifice and the casting of such has resulted in a powerfully punctuated series of performances consistently throughout the evening. Daddy Cane (Stephen Bogardus) as well as Daddy Murphy (Stephen Lee Anderson) and Mama Murphy (Dee Hoty) serve the show well in numbers like “She’s Gone” and “Firmer Hand/Do Right” respectively. Hoty in particular takes a moment or two to shine with one-lined solo bursts of her well-seasoned voice, which blends with ease against her salt of the earth matronly character.
Mayor Josiah Dobbs (Michael Mulheren) delivers the closest thing to villainy found in Bright Star. Ruthless and stalwart in his aristocratic sticking point, Mulheren provides a robust baritone-base blend when going on the defensive in his initial rendition of “A Man’s Gotta Do,” but it’s the harsh and harrowing presentation of “A Man’s Gotta Do (Reprise)” that sends spine-tingling chills and heartbreaking spills out over the audience.
Martin and Brickell’s story even leaves space for some comic relief in the highly affected characters of Daryl Ames (Jeff Blumenkrantz) and Lucy Grant (Emily Padgett.) Blumenkrantz adapts a reedy deadpan to the character of Daryl, which results in humorous outbursts in the magazine office every time he engages with the Lucy and Alice characters. Blumenkrantz even gets a few solo lines during “Another Round.” Padgett leads the number with sassy brassy vocals that are as smooth and as flirtatious as the dancing in which she engages. The pair play well off one another and even bring an extra bout of laughter to the show’s final scene before the big musical finale.
Billy Cane (A.J. Shively) will shine for you just as the show’s title might indicate. Singing the title number with a flourish of hopes and dreams alighting in his voice, Shively masters this number with a flair for the optimistic. His constant adorably awkward flirtations with Margo (Hannah Elless) are both priceless and precious, and the duet the pair shares— “Always Will” is equally sentimental and touching. Elless doesn’t do much singing, but when she does, her voice sounds as if it belongs in the country twang and folksy blues genre in which the show is constructed.
Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Paul Alexander Nolan) is the male heart and soul of the show. Pouring out said heart in the appropriately titled “Heartbreaker,” Nolan brings a burbling authenticity of emotional turmoil right to the surface of the song. Spunky with a bit of southern cheek, his twangy accent carries consistently through his singing voice and holds well in his interactions with Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusak.) Fully enamored with one another once love surfaces between them, their duet “What Could Be Better,” is one of the surefire numbers of the show that puts its mark on the musical as a whole.
Cusak arrives on the scene as a masterful source of country folk soul. Her opening number, “If You Knew My Story” showcases her expansive range into the lower end of her tenor sound. Cusak’s ability to master the versatility of the two personalities that create Alice Murphy is commendable as they are distinctly different, with the events of young Alice’s past informing the physicality, gait, and even textual delivery of the present-day Alice. “Way Back in the Day” sets the plot wheels turning, like a slow paddleboat up a country river, and Cusak’s ability to imbue emotional honesty in the songs she sings is astonishing. Remarkably grounded in her emotional connection to the character, Cusak draws us into the tale of Alice Murphy and clearly articulates the perpetual waves of strife that her character encounters.
A remarkable and refreshingly new tale that is just waiting to be heard, Bright Star glows radiant with potential for its short pre-Broadway debut in the nation’s capital this holiday season. But catch it quick before it burns out, as all great and glorious stars do.
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission
Bright Star plays through January 10, 2015 in the Eisenhower Theatre of The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts— 2700 F Street NW in Washington, DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or purchase them online.