Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina in the mid-1940s, with several important flashbacks to 1923, the plot focuses on two characters whose stories interweave: the young, idealistic fiction writer Billy Cane and the no-nonsense editor of a literary magazine, Alice Murphy. After returning home from war and discovering that his mother has died, Billy decides to follow his dream to be a writer, so he moves from his small home town to the big city of Asheville. Using a lie, he finds a way to meet and get one of his stories to Alice, the nice but somewhat imposing editor of the town's leading literary magazine, the Asheville Southern Journal. While Billy hopes to sell Alice one of his stories, we learn through flashbacks that the prickly Alice was once a free-spirted and idealistic young woman and we witness the tragic event in her past that resulted in her becoming a stern and somewhat emotionless woman. As the plot moves back and forth in time, and the details of Billy's present and Alice's past are revealed, both characters are forced to face the truth about themselves while always looking for the bright star in their life to follow to a hopefully optimistic future.
The score for Bright Star is by well-known comedian Steve Martin and pop singer Edie Brickell, who had one hit song, "What I Am," in 1988. While neither have composed a score for a stage musical before, Martin has authored several plays and Brickell has composed many songs. The two won a Grammy for a song from their bluegrass album "Love Has Come for You" and the score for Bright Star features two songs from that recording. The hints of banjo and fiddle in the rich orchestrations tie directly into the setting of the musical and are delivered beautifully by the cast and the small onstage band under the vocal and music direction by Leia Wasbotten, Mario Yñiguez, and Andrew Chen. Inspired by actual events, Martin's book for the musical creates realistic characters and, while it does occasionally border on melodrama and has a somewhat predictable ending, the dialogue and situations never push too far to become unrealistic. The only slight drawback is due to the structure of the play and how it follows two main characters across two time periods. For example, the opening number is centered on Alice but she then disappears while Billy's story is introduced, which makes it slightly confusing. However, the shifts in the two different time periods are handled expertly and even though I've seen the show before, so I knew what was going to happen, I was still pulled emotionally into the story and found myself in tears at the end.
You can chalk up my emotional impact to Martin's beautiful book and characters and the touching score, as well as Robert Kolby Harper's assured direction and a very moving and emotionally-stirring performance from Frenki Hykollari as Alice. She beautifully navigates through a range of emotions that Alice experiences in the two different time periods in the show. Hykollari is girlish and carefree in the scenes set in the past but almost emotionless in the scenes set 20 years later. While that may be a bit disjointing at first, after we witness the shocking scene toward the end of the first act, the two different portrayals of Alice makes complete sense. Hykollari's singing voice is clear and gorgeous, and it soars on the many ballads and upbeat tunes in the show. It's an emotionally rich and fulfilling performance.
As Billy, Matt Griesgraber is a perfect combination of goofiness and charm. We understand the drive this young writer has as well as the conflicts in his life due to Griesgraber's lovely portrayal; his clear and bright singing voice is beautiful on Billy's numerous songs. Desmond Woodward is good as Jimmy Ray, the wealthy young man Alice falls for in the scenes set in the past. Woodward provides nice conflicted feelings when Jimmy Ray is faced with several decisions in his life. As Jimmy Ray's father, the main protagonist, James William Taylor is excellent. He is commanding and eerily scary at times and his deep singing voice and assured vocal delivery provide realistic layers to the character.
As Margo, the hometown girl who is smitten with Billy, Hannah Brudnock oozes charm and spunk and a lovely singing voice. In supporting parts, Leo Gallegos Fraijo and Aydan Bruce are great comic sidekicks as two of the magazine's employees who work for Alice, and Yophi Adia Bost and Teddy Ladley are wonderful as Alice's parents. Also, Josh Miranda is lovely as Billy's dad, and Xingyu Wang has good comic line delivery as the man who works for Jimmy Ray's father.
Harper's direction ensures every actor creates realistic characters, and his staging works well with the use of Dori Brown's wood centric set design that uses wooden crates, chairs, desks, and a moving platform that are moved around to constantly form new locations that move us from scene to scene and back and forth in time. His dance steps are period and regional specific and, since the opening song has Alice telling that if we knew her story we'd have a good story to tell, I like how Harper keeps the ensemble members on stage watching the action many times as if they are witnesses to the stories in Alice, Jimmy Ray, and Billy's lives. Jordan McAuliffe's lighting uses deep oranges, yellows and blues to depict the various day and night time scenes and Maci Hosler's costumes are lovely period and character specific designs.
While the story of Bright Star may be slightly predictable, the plights of the characters are realistic and the relationships are ones you root to see succeed. With a score that includes numerous toe-tapping tunes and a plot that covers a wide range of emotions and themes, Bright Star, in this ASU Music Theatre and Opera presentation, is a beautiful and moving tale of redemption, forgiveness and understanding.
Bright Star runs through April 24, 2022, at Arizona State University Music Theatre and Opera, with performances at the Evelyn Smith Music Theatre in the ASU School of Music, 50 E. Gammage Pkwy., Tempe AZ. Tickets and information are available at ASU.edu.
Director/Choreographer: Robert Kolby Harper