‘Bright Star’ — Embracing all that Glitters

By Ernest Kearney — Bright Star is the epitome of what the Broadway stage does to perfection.

It is a huge, radiant, exquisitely produced and performed crowd-pleaser; guaranteed to delight busloads of tourists visiting from Kansas.  It is the stuff that allows Broadway theatre to survive.

The three strengths of the show are the music by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell and the presence of Carmen Cusack reprising the lead role of Alice: a role which was not only her Broadway debut (2016), under Walter Bobbie’s consummate direction, but also earned her a Tony Nomination in the process.

If some folks are surprised by the name of Steve “That Wild and Crazy Guy” Martin appearing on a stage bill, not to mention being credited with “music, book and story,” it’s only because they haven’t been paying attention.

Martin’s banjo playing has long been a part of his comedy routines and gradually, beginning in the early 2000s, he has shifted his interest away from the world of stand-up to those of music and theatre.

Martin has gathered some Grammy’s since.  The first he was awarded in 2002 for Best Country Instrumental Performance with Earl Scruggs, and in 2009 his first solo took the Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album.

In the early 1990s, Martin’s first play Picasso at the Lapin Agile opened at the renowned Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago.

Combining those two worlds into a big-booming, three finger-picking musical was the natural next step.

In Bright Star he has collaborated with Edie Brickwell.  Music hounds have had her on their radar since her debut album Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars with the New Bohemians which exploded on the scene in 1988.  And readers of People Magazine may know her as Mrs. Paul Simon.

She and Martin have worked on three highly successful albums Love Has Come for You (2013), Live (2014), and So Familiar (2015).  And they have drawn on those for this show.

This show is in the tradition of the Golden Age of Broadway musical theatre that is meant to be heard and beheld and drank in deeply.

Best, however, to shy away from scrutinizing it much.  Or any.

A.J. Shively-Bright Star

A.J. Shively as Billy in ‘Bright Star.’ (Photo by Craig Schwartz — Courtesy of Center Theatre Group)

Shows like Oklahoma and Grease have been pleasing crowds for decades.  Never mind the one proclaims, “The outsider is the villain,” and the other advocates, “Forget individuality, fit in and be happy.”

Bright Star’s flaw isn’t thematic, but narrative.

Set in the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina the story rightfully belongs to Alice (Cusack), a poor girl from the hill country with both dreams and brains.

Cusack launches the show with a powerhouse of a tune “If You Knew My Story” in which we learn she “was born to carry more than I could hold.”

Immediately after that, the audience suddenly finds itself thrust into someone else’s story entirely.  The narrative shifts between the year after our victories against the Axis forces, and 1923.  This dilution of the dramatic thrust is compounded by a maladroitly applied plot-point. Be aware, Bluegrass music or not, we’re eventually going to trip over Lady Bracknell’s handbag in Victoria Station.

Fortunately, everything else about this show manages to allay critical analysis by suborning the brain’s faculties with a bribe of toe tapping pleasure.  And when your toes are tapping, you can forgive your plot’s pointing.

Martin and Brickell have provided a superb line up of tunes for Cusack and the rest of the cast, and they in turn have done Martin and Brickell proud.

Cusack is a tune belting dynamo, the caliber of talent that with a lesser cast and director would dominate a stage to the detriment of the production.

But not here.

Patrick Cummings as Jimmy Ray Dobbs, the star-crossed Romeo to Cusack’s Juliet, A.J. Shively as Billy the content of the handbag, Stephen Lee Anderson as Daddy Murphy, Allison Briner-Dardenne as Mama Murphy, Jeff Blumenkrantz and Maddie Shea Baldwin are all reprising their Broadway roles with stellar performances, and Jeff Austin as the elder Dobbs with his tortured rendering of “A Man’s Gotta Do” comes close to pulling off the best show stopper since John Cullum’s “Molasses to Rum” in 1776.

But it is Walter Bobbie’s direction that is the real magic here.

Bobbie has had a career of many hats – actor, writer, artistic director and director and wore each successfully.

His direction does not intrude, but embraces.

His staging is both beautifully framed and staggeringly fluid.

He fills his stage with muted motion, and a methodical interplay of illumination and shadows applied with the eye of a Rembrandt.  He never overplays his hand to the point of cluttering his arena, but with the skillfulness of the application, assures there is not one inch of his staging in which dullness can exist.

Bright Star is a feast for both the eye and ear, and a presentation of what the New York stage does better than the rest of us.

Written by

An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, "Among the Vipers" was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist, three times, in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. Kearney remains focused on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. His stage reviews and social essays can be found at TheTVolution.com and workingauthor.com. Follow him on Facebook.

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