Sound Advice Reviews
Broadway's Bright Star
This season's Broadway musicals certainly present a wide range of musical genres in their storytelling, and the cast albums released have been reinforcing that in our minds and ears. Just released, the recording of Bright Star is filled with sounds that blend country, folk, bluegrass and Americana for its characters' expressions of hope and despair.
According to lore, Nero fiddled while Rome burned and a village called Anatevka might have had such a musician playing merrily on a rooftop. For the cast album of Broadway's Bright Star, some of the brightest star performances are by the on-stage musicians, including fiddler (or violinist, if you prefer) Martha McDonnell and Bennett Sullivan who is on the all-important banjo, the instrument that co-composer Steve Martin has long favored and performed on. Sullivan is one of three men playing guitar in the 10-person orchestra led by pianist/accordionist/vocal arranger Rob Berman who has also been the man with the baton at the City Center Encores! series and has Broadway credits including the recent Dames at Sea and Tuck Everlasting. Music supervisor and album producer here is veteran Peter Asher, whose producing credits make him a no-brainer choice. The man who was the Peter of the harmonizing pop duo Peter and Gordon in the 1960s with a close Beatles friendship/working relationship, has been the go-to guy for albums that could be Bright Star's not-so-distant cousins: work by Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, and others. And he worked on albums by Steve Martin and lyricist/co-composer Edie Brickell in the last few years on which they performed several of these songs, some with somewhat different titles.
The production gleams, sound is vibrant and crisp, and most tracks on the dialogue-free disc play rather like a collection of songs more generic than they really areespecially for those who haven't seen the show or become acquainted with the story (also by Martin and Brickell, with a synopsis in the booklet). Note: Brickell alone wrote two of the most touching numbers: "Way Back in the Day" and "At Long Last," for the female lead to lament and then exult. Martin provided additional words for the title tune.
Depending on your point of view and preference for specifics and plot development within a score's numbers, the listening experience is either rewarding or frustrating or maybe a combination. The broadly sketched numbers that are lively feel-good rousers or feel-bad laments can be rewardingly unencumbered stand-alone pleasures whose more generalized lyrics are easy to identify with. The singing is splendid, especially from Bright Star star Carmen Cusack, whose voice can be soaring or searing. It's a rich, emotional instrument that radiates with palpable passion, regret and wistfulness, and the sound of hearts long broken and slow to heal. On the disappointing side, for those who depend on theatre songs to take a character or plot from one point to a developing and revelatory new place, the songs are often plateaus. We are presented with how a character feelsanticipatory while knitting one's soon-to-be born baby's sweater in "I Can't Wait," a selfless promise of being ready for a departed lover's return from "Asheville," and the parental scolding "Firmer Hand" that keeps scolding, despite the countering daughter's wearied "Do Right."
The determinedly optimistic title song bursts with desire to succeed and have adventures. In its restlessness and bursting with "I want" assurance, it has the energy of The Fantasticks' "I Can See It" with the danger signals and warnings conveniently removed. And its fervent plea of "Bright star/ Keep shining for me/ Shine on and see me through," longing for "hopes and dreams and fine imaginings" reminds me of the high-stakes, bright tempo of another show's title song, 1968's Golden Rainbow: "Golden Rainbow, shine above me/ Make my golden dreams come true ... I'm depending on you ... I'm asking, I'm begging, please." That show starred another Steve and Eydie, the famous married pop singing duo with pizzazz, but this Steve and Edie have an earthier and unabashedly folksy-sweet flavor in their score. And the cast embraces it. The title song's pep is delivered with likeably boyish zest as A.J. Shively leads the ensemble and the plucked strings square dance with accelerating percussion. In old-school musical theatre tradition, it and other themes are reprised at the conclusion.
And if you think that number is exuberant, you ain't heard nothin' yet. The relentlessly repeated, succinct, it'll-get-better philosophy that "the 'Sun Is Gonna Shine' again, the sun is gonna shine" makes the Annie assurance that "the sun'll come out 'Tomorrow'" seem almost wan and tentative in comparison. You're really hit over the head with this ensemble number, the first piece in the second act. The song's reappearance at the end of the album drives the message home or may drive you crazy with its chipperness, but it's not the show's ending; it is a bonus track, a hard-sell "single" version.
Other selections suffer from the rigorously applied policy of repetition, like "A Man's Gotta Do" led by menacing-voiced Michael Mulheren who reinforces the title and the rest of the sentence that includes it (not much variety relief in the conclusion when that full sentence is "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do when a man's gotta do what he's got to." (Got that?) To be fair, theatre songs must always be viewed in their contextthe character and the story and what else is happening on stage. There's some counterpoint singing when this number develops into a father/son battle (Mulheren as father and Paul Alexander Nolan as son), so that this repeated chorus is not in the sole aural spotlight. In other selections, the repetition or lack of plot movement gets some welcome distraction with the delightfully entertaining vocal arrangements and instrumentation, as well as appealing singing voices.
Musical theatre veterans such as Stephen Bogardus and Dee Hoty are welcome additions to the cast as parents, yet seemingly underused as singers. But Paul Alexander Nolan as Cusack's character's love interest gets feisty moments to shine like the bright star he has given fine-voiced indications of on two of last year's cast albums: Daddy Long Legs and Doctor Zhivago. But it is Carmen Cusack's star quality that is most compelling and keeps the drama coming back time and again in a superbly committed and calibrated performance.
While some of the more dramatic episodes, like arguments about the fate of a newborn baby, are plot advancement in song, other key plot moments and characters' decisions aren't revealed in lyrics. While that may seem like missed opportunities for those who enjoy specificity and insight into characters through songs, moods and Southern locale definitely come through in emotive performances. For example, Hannah Elless' solo, "Asheville"as the girl back home willing to wait for her traveling true loveis on target for delivering bittersweet good wishes and affection that works in and out of context. And for those who enjoy a touch of country twang in voices and instrumentation, the stronger Bright Star tracks are bright spots in the season's musical theatre landscape with a sound refreshingly different and performed with gusto and heart.