Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Bright Star
National Tour
Review by Richard Connema | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's review of Watch on the Rhine and Richard's review of Shakespeare in Love

Carmen Cusack
Photo by Joan Marcus
The Curran Theatre is hosting the touring production of Edie Brickell and Steve Martin's Bright Star, starring Carmen Cusack in the role she created on Broadway. Let me start by saying I was raised in southern Ohio on "bluegrass country" or "hillbilly music," as we called it. But I found this score to be artificial and ersatz. This uninspired three-chord musical with a story straight out of a soap opera is weak.

Bright Star takes place in North Carolina between 1923 and 1946. The plot centers on the clever and high-spirited Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack) and a very nice young man named Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Patrick Cummings), who fall in love. But Jimmy's father Mayor Josiah Dobbs (Jeff Austin) is against it. He has high ambitions for his son and she is a commoner. Stickily moral Daddy Murphy (David Atkinson) is also against it. When Alice gives birth to a baby, the fathers force the lovers apart and make off with the baby.

Years later, the young soldier Billy Cane (A.J. Shively, also from the original Broadway cast) comes home from World War II and notices Margo Crawford (Maddie Shea Baldwin). Billy wants be a writer like Ernest Hemingway, so he packs his manuscripts and heads to the North Carolina and the Asheville Southern Journal, where Alice happens to be the editor. Fortunately for Billy, his talent is noticed and Alice encourages him. That's all I'll tell you.

Bright Star's book by Steve Martin is moving yet Hallmark card-ish. The music ever quite rises to the poignant upsurges the story would seem to command. The first number, "If You Knew My Story," which has many garrulous lyrics and is sung gloriously by Carmen Cusack, hashes out the plot's exaggerated content. The "Asheville," sung by Allison Briner-Dardenne as Mama Murphy with a pitch perfect voice, is the same way. The highlight for me is "A Man's Gotta Do," sung powerful by Jeff Austin. It's a "shit-kicking" hoedown number that reminded me of kicking a wicked leg in the hoedowns I attend in my youth.

Carmen Cusack is luminous as Alice Murphy. She uses hers whole self fervently and vocally. As Daryl Ames, Jeff Blumenkrantz, another returnee from the original cast, gives an exhilarating performance as Daryl Ames. He has the most clever lines. Jeff Austin as Mayor Dobbs is most impressive with his booming voice, and A.J. Shively has great vocal cords as does Maddie Shea Baldwin.

The choreography by Josh Rhodes is on the order of Martha Graham dances, with arms flailing and bodies swaying. Eugene Lee's versatile set has the proper rustic look about it. There are intimate playing spaces for the storytelling scenes and room for expansion for Josh Rhodes' dancers. The band, with a guitar, mandolin, banjo, violin, viola, fiddle, accordion, piano, drums and autoharp, is at the center of the stage inside a wooden shack.

Bright Star runs at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary Street, San Francisco until December 17, 2017. Tickets can be obtained online For more information on the tour, visit