'Bright Star': Theater Review

Courtesy of Craig Schwartz
Carmen Cusack in 'Bright Star'
Simple songs, simpler times.

The Steve Martin-Edie Brickell country musical arrives in Los Angeles on tour with several original castmembers, including Carmen Cusack reprising her Tony-nominated role.

There’s no dancing allowed in the aisles of the Ahmanson Theatre, but you’d be forgiven for succumbing to the fiddle- and banjo-heavy tunes of Bright Star, the guileless musical by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell. Of course, if the fiddle and banjo aren’t your thing, you might not want to dance at all. In fact, you might find this ebullient melodrama about a girl and boy with literary aspirations in small-town North Carolina a ho-hum look back at a time and place that looms large in the American consciousness, even if it never really existed.

After originating at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre in 2014, Bright Star went on to the Kennedy Center in Washington the following year en route to Broadway, where it garnered five Tony nominations, including one for breakout star Carmen Cusack, a luminous main attraction reprising her role in Los Angeles as Alice Murphy, an acerbic editor with a tragic past.

Alice opens the show singing "If You Knew My Story" as she emerges from set designer Eugene Lee’s multi-use wooden shack on wheels, which houses the 10-piece band and moves about as needed throughout the night. “If you knew my story/My heaven and my hell/If you knew my story/You’d have a good story to tell,” she sings, revealing almost nothing about herself or her story.

The year is 1945; Billy Cane (A.J. Shively, also from the original cast) returns from the horrors of war with everything intact, including his sweet youthful naivete. He sings the show’s title tune, "Bright Star," underscoring the power of positive thinking. What’s wrong with that? Nothing. But it’s difficult to believe a spring in your step and a tune in your heart is the panacea it’s made out to be. In fact, the show’s main theme seems to be that grief and loss can be kicked to the curb with an upbeat tune and a little optimism.

Billy loves Margo (Maddie Shea Baldwin), only he doesn’t yet know it. A childhood friend, she’s grown up while he’s been away and now works in a bookstore where she promises to wait as he sets off to Asheville to publish his short stories in a revered literary journal. There he meets the editor, Alice, and her wryly humorous minions Daryl Ames (Jeff Blumenkrantz) and Lucy Grant (Kaitlyn Davidson). Alice finds little of interest in Billy’s writing, but advances him a modest sum on his next effort.

When she breaks into "Way Back in the Day," we finally we get to hear Alice’s story told in flashback to 1923. Cusack makes a stunning transformation to the teenage Alice while still maintaining aspects of the woman she will become — insouciant, playful and whip-smart, with a taste for adventure. That taste can get a girl in trouble, and after meeting the mayor’s son, Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Patrick Cummings), you can guess what kind.

In fact, you can guess a whole lot about Bright Star, just as most of the audience seemed to during intermission, murmuring about Mayor Dobbs’ dastardly deed committed at the end of the first act when he sings the show’s weakest number, "A Man’s Gotta Do."

The cast is uniformly strong, blending newcomers with original ensemble members like Cusack, Shively and Cummings, who played the Stationmaster on Broadway. He's sufficiently dreamy as Jimmy Ray, bringing a luggish charm to balance Alice’s sharper edges, and he sings his solo, "Heartbreaker," with passion and nuance. As Margo, Baldwin glows in a role she previously understudied; waiting patiently for Billy to wake up to their inevitable union, she demonstrates warmth and tenderness in her solo, "Asheville."

Choreography by Josh Rhodes (Cinderella) is limited to (you guessed it) a square dance and the show’s most enjoyable number, "Another Round," a barroom hootenanny featuring folksy moves led by Lucy. Veteran director Walter Bobbie (Chicago) displays a casual ease with ensemble as well as intimate scenes, but his greatest accomplishment is in his work with Cusack, finding the balance between the young and older Alice and dialing in the right dose of vinegar.

The story’s sharp delineation between good and evil is in tune with its broad melodramatic points, which can be perceived as either a nod to a playhouse staple of the past or just plain lazy plotting. Similarly, North Carolina in the 1920s and 1940s might be remembered as a place of promise filled with well-meaning white folk and nary a non-Caucasian. Or it could be a place of stultifying poverty and Jim Crow laws where lynchings were common occurrences. The first option represents a nostalgic fantasy that only exists in the imagination, one that Bright Star perpetuates. The second is a hard reality that this musical declines to confront.

Some might argue that Bright Star is the perfect antidote for cynical times. But cynical times are sometimes cynical for a reason. If artists are supposed to challenge themselves as well as their audience, Martin and Brickell have certainly done the former with their first Broadway foray following the success of their 2013 Grammy-winning album Love Has Come for You. Unfortunately, Bright Star fails to challenge its audience with anything stronger than bromides, vacant smiles and sameness from song to song.

Venue: Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles
Cast: Carmen Cusack, Stephen Lee Anderson, David Atkinson, Jeff Austin, Maddie Shea Baldwin, Jeff Blumenkrantz, Allison Briner-Dardenne, Patrick Cummings, Kaitlyn Davidson, A.J. Shively, Devin Archer, Kelly Baker, Audrey Cardwell, Max Chernin, Robin De Lano, Richard Gatta, David Kirk Grant, Donna Louden, Kevin McMahon, Alessa Neeck, Robert Pieranunzi, Michael Starr
Director: Walter Bobbie
Music: Steve Martin, Edie Brickell
Lyrics: Edie Brickell
Book: Steve Martin; story by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell
Set designer: Eugene Lee
Costume designer: Jane Greenwood
Lighting designer: Japhy Weideman
Sound designer: Nevin Steinberg
Music director & vocal arranger: Rob Berman
Orchestrations: August Eriksmoen
Choreographer: Josh Rhodes
Presented by Center Theatre Group, Joey Parnes, Sue Wagner, John Johnson, The Curran, AT&T PAC/SHN, Blumenthal Performing Arts, Broadway Seris South, Theatre Under the Stars, The Old Globe