World premiere musical is based on true events
The Old Globe assembles a solid company directed by Walter Bobbie for the world premiere of Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s original musical, “Bright Star.” The production plays through Nov. 2 on the Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, best known as the Old Globe Theatre. This review is based on the invited press performance of Sept. 27.
Martin’s heartfelt book is based on a true incident, and as they say, truth is stranger than fiction. The co-written music is awash in country and bluegrass, so much so that at the evening’s end one feels as if one had been to Branson or the Grand Ole Opry. Part of Eugene Lee’s facile set is a rustic, rolling bandstand containing most of the nine-member orchestra, dressed as citizens and led by Music Director Rob Berman, who is also the vocal arranger.
The sweet story’s drawback (one might call it treacle if one enjoyed it less) is its transparency. Once the first act’s set up, numerous intertwined characters in two separate decades (1923 – 24 and 1945 – 46) is delivered, it’s likely that the astute onlooker has guessed the rest. All that remains is to poke one’s seatmate and say, “See? I told you so.” This is not to say the show should be coy about its denouement or should be changed. Its unsophistication is part of its charm, but will it survive Broadway?
Perhaps the story is as honest and refreshing, as dark and light as its engagingly earnest, mostly fully fleshed characters steeped in the world of Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers. This is a land where villains are unusually devious and one’s social improprieties are public knowledge. This is especially true in Hays Creek and Asheville, North Carolina, where the action is set.
A brief chamber music prelude, brilliantly written, sets up the possibility this could be a tragedy. Debarking the train at Asheville in his unadorned WWII private’s uniform, 22-year-old Billy Cane (A.J. Shively) has miles to go before he arrives home to reunite with his father (Stephen Bogardus), to tell him of his decision to become a writer. Beloved of Margo Crawford (Hannah Elless), who runs the local bookstore in their hometown, Billy soon departs for Asheville, where he aspires to be published in the prestigious Asheville Southern Journal, run by the no-nonsense Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack).
The 1923 – 24 plot involves Alice’s romance with Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Wayne Alan Wilcox), son of corrupt and over-protective Zebulon mayor Josiah Dobbs (Wayne Duvall), who thinks he knows what is best for everyone. Five additional actors — Jeff Hiller, Kate Loprest, Stephen Lee Anderson, Patti Cohenour and Libby Winters — portray magazine staff and family members, all of whom are given full character and in some cases even a song. These, plus an ensemble of 11 and the two-era action provide a complex situation and a dizzying array of characters whose motivations are not always clear. It’s almost “The Winter’s Tale” of musical theater.
Virtues: the singing, particularly that of Cusack, who moves easily from uptight, demanding boss to girl in love. Her voice has a slight country bleat, excellent tone and diction. The others are all better than adequate, with Hiller providing needed comic relief. The drawback: Most of the 17 songs, which include solos, duets and ensembles, sound alike.
Nonetheless, the show’s got heart. In addition to Lee’s ingenious set, other assets include Jane Greenwood’s costumes, Japhy Weideman’s lighting, Nevin Steinberg’s coherent sound design, and Josh Rhodes’s choreography. Despite their frequent travels the orchestra apparently has a great time. Peter Asher is musical supervisor and August Eriksmoen orchestrator.
—Charlene Baldridge has been writing about the arts since 1979. Her book “San Diego, Jewel of the California Coast” (Northland Publishing) is currently available in bookstores. She can be reached at email@example.com.