'Bright Star': Theater Review

Bright Star Production Still - H 2016
Nick Stokes

Bright Star Production Still - H 2016

Hokey but heartwarming.

Walter Bobbie directs this original bluegrass musical by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, about two Southerners in the 1940s whose lives are more intertwined than they know.

A key inspiration for Bright Star was a real-life story from 1902, but the plot contrivances woven around that incident — a lost infant, an encounter many years later between strangers unaware of their deep connection, a conveniently timed discovery and a rapturous happy ending, complete with matching betrothals — are so fanciful that only Shakespeare could have gotten away with them. Still, there's a disarming sweetness and sincerity to this folksy Americana bluegrass musical, created by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, which makes the tuneful melodrama a pleasurable experience. It also helps that talented lead Carmen Cusack brings such integrity and warmth to her performance.

That Martin is a man of many accomplishments is no secret. Since blossoming from absurdist stand-up into screen work in 1979 with The Jerk, which he also co-wrote, he has juggled various sidelines with his acting and screenwriting — as a playwright, novelist, art collector and musician. A banjo player since his teens, he made the instrument a regular part of his early comedy gigs. He won a Grammy in 2010 for his first bluegrass album, and has since released two rootsy collaboration albums with alt-rock singer-songwriter and fellow Texan Brickell, which led to this musical.

The book by Martin, from a story he and Brickell developed together, is stuffed with corn and with as many improbable coincidences as plot holes. But the show's prime asset is the duo's lovely score, steeped in the toe-tapping sounds of fiddle, banjo and piano that dominate the 10-piece band. Brickell's lyrics lack imagination and specificity, and can seem awkwardly pasted onto gentle melodies that at times become a little samey. (The songs "A Man's Gotta Do" and "Always Will" are particular clunkers.) But the pretty ballads and jaunty square-dance tunes generally are easy on the ear, richly evoking a time and place while amplifying the earnest and affecting sentiments of this proudly uncynical musical.

Aside from revivals of classics, the Broadway musical has become the domain chiefly of edgy irreverence, cartoonish fun, or in a rare few cases like that of Hamilton, bold storytelling and formal innovation. So where a pleasant down-home period piece like Bright Star might fit into that landscape, without the boost of a well-known title or marquee-name stars, remains an open question. But it's not intended as a dig to say that the show has the comfort-food appeal of an emotionally uplifting basic-cable movie. That means many mainstream audiences will find it satisfying entertainment, though probably more so on tour in the regions than in the crowded marketplace of New York.

Director Walter Bobbie (a Tony winner for Chicago) and veteran set designer Eugene Lee clearly recognize the primacy of the music in this material. They situate a handful of key players, including music director Rob Berman on piano, in a skeletal cabin structure that's moved around the stage, serving as various houses and barn dance venues in the story and helping to integrate the musicians among the actors.

Carmen Cusack and company in 'Bright Star'

The show opens in 1945 with the return from war of Billy Cane (A.J. Shively) to Hayes Creek, North Carolina. His homecoming is dampened when his father (Stephen Bogardus) confesses that he couldn't bring himself to write and tell Billy his mother had died. She passed on her love of words to her son, who in his haste to become a published author somehow misses the romantic signals being sent by his childhood pal Margo (Hannah Elless), a clerk in the local bookstore.

Hand-delivering a selection of his stories to the Asheville Southern Journal, Billy meets Alice Murphy (Cusack), a sharp literary editor who has helped foster some of the South's greatest writers. She passes on Billy's submissions but his chutzpah earns him a $10 down payment on future work. As he toils away, the show shifts gears, back-tracking 22 years when Alice's assistants, Daryl (Jeff Blumenkrantz) and Lucy (Emily Padgett), somewhat randomly ask why she's such a wallflower. That prompts the song "Way Back in the Day," which transforms Alice from a wry Eve Arden type into a free-spirited teenage girl in the town of Zebulon.

Even when Martin's book is clumsy, Bobbie's direction keeps the distinctions between time periods clear and the transitions smooth in fluid scene changes. He's aided immeasurably by Cusack's nuanced work as she slips from the crisp professionalism of a single woman pushing 40, with no personal life, to the vigor and untarnished hopefulness of youth. This interlude also introduces choreographer Josh Rhodes' liveliest work, infusing the music with the rhythmic sounds of hand clapping and thigh slapping, in songs that echo traditional bluegrass.

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Despite the strictness of her puritanical parents (Stephen Lee Anderson and Dee Hoty), Alice has fallen in love with fresh-faced Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Paul Alexander Nolan), the son of the Mayor (Michael Mulheren). But when she gets pregnant following an afternoon idyll by the river, their plans to marry are nixed by Mayor Dobbs, who has other ideas for his boy. Alice is packed off to a cabin in the woods until the child is born, and then in an agreement forged between her father and the Mayor, her baby boy is wrenched from her arms to be given up for adoption.

Martin never quite manages to justify Jimmy Ray's compliant weakness in all this, even later when the monstrous truth emerges. That makes him an oddly spineless romantic lead. And it doesn't make a heck of a lot of sense that Alice decides to ratchet up her investigative efforts precisely when she does. There are few who won't see the big Act 2 disclosure coming a mile off, when the twin plot strands converge. But the story is essentially a fable — or a "sweeping tale of pain and redemption," like the one Alice tells the struggling Billy to write — and demands to be treated as such.

The Blue Ridge Mountains are subtly represented in a stylized outline that runs across the rear wall of Lee's set, over which lighting designer Japhy Weideman paints delicate watercolor skies. But the most transporting element of this handsome production, along with the music, is Broadway newcomer Cusack, who leads a fine cast of solid singer-actors. Injecting a light country catch into her full-throated voice, she breathes genuine feeling into the role of a woman whose heart soars only to shatter. When she unexpectedly finds that same elation two decades later in the hymn of deliverance, "At Long Last," it's easy to overlook the shortcomings of the musical's craft and go with its sweet-natured optimism. Not for nothing does the second act open with "Sun's Gonna Shine," asserting an ebullient spirit that trumps all narrative adversity.

Venue: Cort Theater, New York
Cast: Carmen Cusack, Paul Alexander Nolan, Michael Mulheren, A.J. Shively, Hannah Elless, Stephen Bogardus, Dee Hoty, Stephen Lee Anderson, Emily Padgett, Jeff Blumenkrantz, Allison Briner-Dardenne, Max Chernin, Patrick Cummings, Sandra DeNise, Michael X. Martin, Tony Roach, Sarah Janes Shanks, William Youmans
Director: Walter Bobbie
Music: Steve Martin, Edie Brickell
Lyrics: Edie Brickell
Book: Steve Martin; story by Martin and 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 Joey Parnes, Sue Wagner, John Johnson, Zebulon LLC, Jay Alix & Una Jackman, Len Blavatnik, James L. Nederlander, Carson & Joseph Gleberman, Balboa Park Productions, in association with Rodger Hess, A.C. Orange International, Broadway Across America, Sally Jacobs & Warren Baker, Exeter Capital, Agnes Gund, True Love Productions, The Old Globe