Also see Bill's review of A Discourse on The Wonders of the Invisible World
Think a roots version of Oklahoma! without the dream ballet. It's old fashioned in a good way. It tugs at your heartstrings. Maybe too much.
Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack) has grown up in a small town. She's bright and capable. That means there aren't too many men around to choose from. She is attracted to Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Wayne Alan Wilcox), and he to her. The problem is that he's the mayor's (Wayne Duvall) son, and his father has been grooming him to take over. A marriage to a woman from a simple family (Stephen Lee Anderson, Patti Cohenour, and Libby Winters) won't do.
Alice goes off to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She studies writing and eventually becomes editor of the Asheville Southern Journal, publishing work by the leading literary lights of the Southern Renaissance. She marries her work, and her staff (Jeff Hiller and Kate Loprest) regard her with a sense of awe.
One day, a young man (A. J. Shively) walks into the journal's office. He's brash, and he lies about a connection to Thomas Wolfe, an Asheville native. The staff tries to shoo him away, but Alice decides to encourage him.
Only, I started this synopsis several scenes into the play. It doesn't exactly happen in chronological order, and we've already met the young man, his widowed father (Stephen Bogardus), and the young woman who runs his town's bookstore (Hannah Elless).
Now, to go further would risk spoiling the story. Not that there's a whole lot to spoil: I am pretty much a go-with-the-flow kind of audience member, but I had the big reveal figured out about a third of the way into act one. And I suspect I wasn't by any means alone.
Figuring where things are going early means that you're going to have to like the journey to be satisfied. And you know what? Mostly, I did.
Here's what I liked most: an extraordinarily likeable cast, choreography by Josh Rhodes that draws on folk traditions but doesn't overdo those traditions, and a really kick-ass band (under Rob Berman's direction) featuring Bennett Sullivan on banjo (Mr. Martin's instrument) and a local violinist named Tiffany Sieker, whose playing blew me away.
But, the biggest factor in my enjoyment was Walter Bobbie's direction, which is by any standard the definition of fluidity. I wondered whether the creative team had seen the show that was on stage before this one, Fiasco's Into the Woods, because there were quite a few similar ideas: performers on the sides of the stage when not in the scene, a rotating platform for the musicians that became an integral part of the scenic design (by Eugene Lee), and a set piece done up to look like the theatre's rear wall. Even if they hadn't, the ideas work: the show keeps moving, and the two hours, fifteen minutes, running time speeds by.
Mr. Martin and Ms. Brickell make for expert collaborators. His book is spare and direct (the only real laughs go to Mr. Hiller's character, who is played as bitchy and sharp-tongued). Her lyrics are simple and sentimental but do their job. Their music is theatrical without seeming so.
Bright Star expertly wears its heart on its sleeve, and as long as you're willing to take it on its own terms you'll be won over.
The Old Globe presents the world premiere of Bright Star through November 2, 2014. Performances each evening, except Monday, along with matinees on Saturday and Sunday, at the Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, Old Globe Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way, in San Diego's Balboa Park. Tickets, starting at $49, are available by calling (619) 23-GLOBE [234-5623] or by visiting the Old Globe website at www.theoldglobe.org.
Music by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, Lyrics by Edie Brickell, Book by Steve Martin, Based on an original story by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell.
Directed by Walter Bobbie, with Choreographer Josh Rhodes, Musical Supervisor Peter Asher, and Musical Director and Vocal Arrangements by Rob Berman, Scenic Design by Eugene Lee, Costume Design by Jane Greenwood, Lighting Design by Japhy Weideman, Sound Design by Nevin Steinberg, and Orchestrations by August Eriksmoen.
The cast includes: Stephen Lee Anderson (Daddy Murphy), Stephen Bogardus (Daddy Cane), Allison Briner (Ensemble), Max Chernin (Ensemble), Patti Cohenour (Mama Murphy), Carmen Cusack (Alice Murphy), Wayne Duvall (Mayor Josiah Dobbs), Hannah Elless (Margo Crawford), Paige Herschell (Swing), Jeff Hiller (Daryl Ames), Leah Horowitz (Ensemble), Joe Jung (Ensemble), Lulu Lloyd (Swing), Kate Loprest (Lucy Grant), Ashley Robinson (Ensemble), Greg Roderick (Swing), Sarah Jane Shanks (Ensemble), A.J. Shively (Billy Cane), Scott Wakefield (Ensemble), Wayne Alan Wilcox (Jimmy Ray Dobbs), and Libby Winters (Dora Murphy).