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Bright Star

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 24, 2016

Bright Star Music, book & story by Steve Martin. Music, lyrics & story by Edie Brickell. Directed by Walter Bobbie. Choreography by Josh Rhodes. Scenic design by Eugene Lee. Costume design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting design by Japhy Weideman. Sound design by Nevin Steinberg. Hair & wig design by Tom Watson. Orchestrations by August Eriksmoen. Cast: Carmen Cusack, Paul Alexander Nolan, Michael Mulheren, A.J. Shively, Hannah Elless, Stephen Bogardus, Dee Hoty, Stephen Lee Anderson, Emily Padgett, Jeff Blumenkrantz, and Maddie Shea Baldwin, Allison Briner-Dardenne, Max Chernin, Patrick Cummings, Sandra DeNise, Richard Gatta, Lizzie Klemperer, Michael X. Martin, William Michals, Tony Roach, Sarah Jane Shanks, William Youmans.
Theatre: Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street between Broadway and 6th Avenue
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes, including one intermission
Tickets: Telecharge

Carmen Cusack and Paul Alexander Nolan
Photo by Nick Stokes

Who would have thought that something this fresh could seem so stale? Despite the vibrant life pulsating from the bluegrass that underscores Bright Star, which just opened at the Cort, the overwhelming feeling that emanates from this new musical by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell is the exhaustion of cliché. And that's something that none of its other, better elements, including a bewitching performance from a true star in the making, can fully mask.

The chief problem here is that, outside of the delightful music, there's nothing new in either the story or the telling of it that energizes the drama across nearly two and a half hours. Tempted though you may be to forgive Martin, the esteemed comedian who's also an accomplished banjo player, and Brickell, who's clearly a gifted musician, and for that matter director Walter Bobbie (the long-running revival of Chicago, among many others) for the openhearted show they've created, its empty-headedness doesn't make doing so easy.

Billy Cane (A.J. Shively) is a 22-year-old who's just returned from World War II to his home of Hayes Creek, North Carolina, and hopes to kindle a new life as a writer. Things aren't exactly as he left them—his mother has passed away, and childhood buddy Margo Crawford (Hannah Elless) has grown up and out in ways he now can't help but notice—but they're solid enough for him to pursue his new career in the bustling metropolis of Asheville, writing for the highly regarded Asheville Southern Journal.

Its editor is a straitlaced dragon lady named Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack), who reduces grown men to tears (including, it's reputed, Ernest Hemingway) through her devastating comments and cuts. Billy is able to arouse her interest and get his manuscripts on the top of her pile by touting his recommendation from Thomas Wolfe, though his success is far from a sure thing.

It's at this point that Alice's reminiscences take over and we travel into her adolescence in the rural Zebulon 22 years earlier. It turns out that she fell for Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Paul Alexander Nolan), the son of the mayor (Michael Mulheren), and got into, shall we say, trouble, that his well-connected father had to, well, fix. As the action flips between the 1920s and the 1940s, we see how the impact and the outcome of these events is still being felt far down the line.

If it doesn't sound like there's much meat here, there isn't, and I must report that I pegged the obligatory big "twist," which is revealed at the end of Act II, before the halfway point of Act I. This leaves a lot of filler time devoted to Alice's mother (Dee Hoty) in Zebulon and flunkies at the magazine (Emily Padgett and Jeff Blumenkrantz), and Billy (far too slowly) coming around to Margo's sledgehammer-to-the-head affection for him. If you don't like always being smarter than the characters you're watching or always keeping eight steps ahead of the plot, Bright Star is not remotely your kind of show.

Worse than Martin and Brickell's lack of faith in you, however, is their lack of faith in basic narrative. The show is so warm and friendly that I hate to say this so bluntly, but it's a genuine organizational mess. The opening number is set, per the script, in "Limbo," with Alice begging you to listen to her story—even though we're a good 20 minutes away from meeting her. When we finally do, Billy is all but abandoned and appears in but fits and starts until the two branches eventually converge toward the end. Until that point, it's rarely possible to know which one you should be following or why, even though the connections between them are blinding in their obviousness.

The lyrics fall lower still. "If you knew my story / My heaven and my hell / If you knew my story / You'd have a good story to tell," Alice moans at the outset. Billy's excitement is similarly generic: "I'm ready for my life to begin / I'm ready for it all to start / My heart's about to bust / Don't lead the way, I must / Follow my own bright star." Still other songs turn on trite (if not anachronistic) phrases like "back in the day," "a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do," and "always have, always will." And almost all of them eschew conveying relevant psychological information; after all, you're limited in what you can learn when the chorus endlessly bleats out lines like "You'd have a good story to tell," "Pour me another round," and "the sun is gonna shine again" (these six words are sung 21 times in a row).

This is strictly pop thinking, and results in a musical that never comes alive emotionally. (The writers have even repurposed two numbers from their 2013 music CD Love Has Come for You including, unsurprisingly, "Sun's Gonna Shine," to muted effect.) Talented as Martin and Brickell may be in their own fields, they needed real assistance from an experienced hand in spotting and deploying the songs. They have a spectacular Southern sound, twangy and authentic, as orchestrated by August Eriksmoen and arranged by Rob Berman, who also conducts the string-heavy onstage band, but it can't cut through the overall meaningless of their words and presentation.

Bobbie has tried to stage with a breezy informality, which primarily involves the nonstop motion of the wood-frame house portion of Eugene Lee's rustic-hoedown set (the costumes, by the ever-reliable Jane Greenwood, and the lights, by Japhy Weideman, are right in line), and Josh Rhodes provides the requisite knee-slapping choreography, but it all creates an arid, desperate atmosphere that even the performances fail to puncture. Good as the supporting players are, particularly Blumenkrantz (a hoot in an extraneous Paul Lynde part) and the endearing Shively but also the typically sumptuous Hoty, the hard-working Nolan, and game veterans who also include Stephen Lee Andersen (as Alice's father) and Stephen Bogardus (as Billy's), their characters don't make firm impressions.

Only one does, and it's the one part of Bright Star that is unquestionably right. Cusack is a coruscating force of nature as Alice, making the kind of thunder-clapping Broadway debut we see too rarely these days. Equally convincing playing 16 and 38, first overflowing with optimism and then drained of hope altogether, she inhabits every nook and cranny of the ravages to which this woman has been exposed. She makes every moment of joy, pain, anguish, and redemption as powerful and natural as it can be, imbuing them all with both wrenching intimacy and no shortage of sweeping theatrical breadth.

She triumphs so handily in her 11-o'clock number, in fact, that you hardly notice how ho-hum hokey it is. It's a piece of piffle with lyrics like "As the sky was darkening / Through years of night / I felt a door was opening / To this gorgeous morning light" and "Lonely moments nearly / Broke my will to live / Something always told me to / Hold on for this," but Cusack finds in it every excuse to unleash the ecstasy Alice needs to fuse the two generations across which she's constantly leaping. It's three minutes of sheer spiritual exultation in a show that's otherwise determined to remain earthbound.

The music throbs with a quasi-gospel fervor, but it's the decades of dust uncaking from Alice's withered soul that makes the mustiness pure magic. It's not enough to elevate the evening above the pedestrian, but it provides a vividly memorable moment in the otherwise forgettable Bright Star.

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