Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Bright Star
Hale Centre Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule (updated)

Also see Gil's reviews of One Man, Two Guvnors and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner


Heidi-Liz Johnson and Allan DeWitt
Photo by Nick Woodward-Shaw
It may not have had a lengthy Broadway run, where it was nominated for five Tony Awards including Best Musical, and it does have a fairly predictable plot that slightly borders on melodrama, but the musical Bright Star has an abundance of charm, endearing characters, and a musical score of upbeat bluegrass tunes and soaring ballads. Hale Centre Theatre presents the Phoenix premiere in a production with excellent direction and a talented cast featuring a starring performance by Heidi-Liz Johnson that soars. All of these elements combine into an incredibly moving production that offsets many of the musical's small shortcomings.

The plot focuses on two characters whose stories interweave, and is set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina in the mid-1940s with flashbacks to 1923. After returning home from war, Billy Cane discovers his mother has died, so he decides to follow his dream of being a writer and moves from his small-town home to the big city of Asheville, North Carolina. As soon as he arrives, he walks right into the office of the leading literary magazine, the Asheville Southern Journal, and uses a lie to successfully meet Alice Murphy, the magazine's prickly, imposing, no-nonsense editor, hoping to sell her at least one of his fiction stories. Alice, we quickly learn through flashbacks, has a story of her own. She was once a free-spirited young woman with dreams who was faced with a situation which she had little control over. As the musical moves back and forth in time and alternates between Alice's past and Billy's present we see how the characters tackle grief and discover the truth about the past and themselves, following their "bright star" to an optimistic future.

At first glance it may seem a bit shocking that this well-crafted emotional musical is the work of famous, wild comedian Steve Martin and lesser-known pop singer Edie Brickell, who only had one hit song, "What I Am." But Martin has several plays to his credit and Brickell is a talented songwriter. The two previously worked together on the bluegrass album "Love Has Come for You," which won a Grammy Award for one of its songs and was the inspiration for Bright Star score; a couple of songs that appear in the musical are from that album. Their compositions for the show are a collection of country and folk tunes with fiddle and banjo accents.

Martin's book is based on an actual story and folk song, and it works fairly well in depicting characters you care about. However, there are a few hokey moments in the plot as well as a few structural issues, including an ending you may see coming as soon as the first act ends. Also, the opening number focuses entirely on Alice, clearly painting her and her story as the thrust of the piece, only to have her completely disappear from the show for the next 15 minutes while the story centers completely on Billy and his journey to Asheville. This seems slightly odd and confusing and also gives the show a somewhat disjointed feeling until the stories of both characters finally merge. While the story and characters are sentimental and the plot somewhat contrived in its far-fetched storytelling, it still manages to hold you in its grip. I'll admit to shedding a few tears at the end even though I was fairly certain I knew exactly what was going to happen.

As Alice Murphy, Heidi-Liz Johnson is simply stunning. She effectively uses two distinct voice inflections to portray Alice at the two different time periods in the piece and instills the character with a range of emotions and wit that beautifully help the audience see how the events in the carefree character's past have made the older Alice the fairly emotionless woman she is. Johnson's singing voice is full of shine and sparkle with notes that are crystal clear. I've seen Johnson in numerous shows in town and she is always excellent. Her portrayal of Alice may be her best performance yet.

Allan DeWitt has abundant charm as the young and rambunctious writer Billy. With a wonderful comic sensibility, DeWitt manages to make Billy somewhat goofy yet also entirely lovable. As Jimmy Ray, the handsome and wealthy young man Alice falls for in the scenes set in the past, Cameron Rollins does very well in depicting the character's conflicted nature of having to decide either to be with the woman he loves or do right by his wealthy father. When Jimmy Ray is confronted with the truth about a major plot point in the show, Rollins beautifully depicts the pain Jimmy feels. Amanda Glenn has spunk and charm, and a gorgeous singing voice, as Margo, Billy's childhood friend who wants to be more than just a friend. DeWitt, Rollins, and Glenn all create characters the audience can care for, bringing wonderful singing voices that make the most of their many solos and group numbers. Also, both Johnson and Rollins and DeWitt and Glenn create realistic relationships with desire, a palpable heat, and a large amount of love, making it easy to root for them all to succeed.

Taylor Hudson is appropriately villainous as Jimmy Ray's father. As two of Alice's employees at the magazine, JT Ziervogel delivers his comical lines with nonstop sass, while Abbi Cavanaugh effectively creates a love-starved woman who falls for Billy in a hard way. Brandon Zale and Mary Jane McCloskey are very good as Alice's parents, who face heartbreaking challenges, and Tom Killam is lovely as Billy's dad.

Tim Dietlein's direction is sharp, with every actor creating fleshed our characters, and his scene changes are very fluid. There are many moments in the show that move from one time period to the next, and Dietlein instills them all with a cinematic nature. When you first see how simple Alice's transformation is depicted, from the present to the past, you'll be amazed in its beauty and effectiveness. His set design uses movable set pieces to portray a wooden cabin, the office of the Journal, and various other locations and his lighting is infused with a range of colors and shadows that create beautiful stage images. Cambrian James' choreography is a mix of varied, period and regionally centric steps that are well danced by the cast. Tia Hawkes' costumes feature warm, rich fabrics and designs that tie into the setting and range of time periods. Music director Lincoln Wright derives gorgeous harmonies from the cast and the projections by Jessica Ottley are lovely, including a moving image that ends the first act that is both breathtaking in its simplistic beauty and heartbreaking in its depiction.

With several toe-tapping tunes and a plot that covers a wide range of emotions and themes, including redemption, forgiveness and understanding, Bright Star may be somewhat predictable and border on melodrama but in Hale Center Theatre's beautiful, well-cast production it is also funny and charming, with emotion that shines bright.

Bright Star, through October 5, 2019, at Hale Centre Theatre, 50 W. Page Avenue, Gilbert AZ. For tickets and information, visit www.haletheatrearizona.com or call 480-497-1181.

Directed by Tim Dietlein
Choreographed by Cambrian James
Music Director: Lincoln Wright
Theater Set Director: Brian Daily
Costume Designer: Tia Hawkes
Lighting & Set Designer: Tim Dietlein
Wigs & Make-Up: Cambrian James
Props: McKenna Carpenter, Laura Hawkes & Monica Christiansen
Projections: Jessica Ottley
Sound Design / Stage Manager: Justin Peterson

Cast:
Alice Murphy: Heidi-Liz Johnson
Jimmy Ray Dobbs: Cameron Rollins
Billy Cane: Allan DeWitt
Margo Crawford: Amanda Glenn
Mayor Josiah Dobbs: Taylor Hudson
Daddy Murphy: Brandon Zale
Mama Murphy: Mary Jane McCloskey
Daryl Ames: JT Ziervogel
Lucy Grant: Abbi Cavanaugh
Daddy Cane/Dr. Norquist: Tom Killam
Stanford Adams/Ensemble: Kyle Webb
Max / Ensemble: Hunter Cuison
Edna / Ensemble: Emily Woodward-Shaw
Florence / Ensemble: Jordan Zemp
Woman / Ensemble: Ariana Mai Lucius
Ensemble: Sarah Cleeland, Albert Johnson, Alex Partida


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