Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's reviews of Escaped Alone, and Here We Go: Two Plays by Caryl Churchill and Our Town
While Bright Star was dubbed a "bluegrass musical," far from being a series of similar sounding banjo-pickin' ditties, it reveals the range of styles and feelings the genre is able to convey. The score was composed by Steve Martin (the "wild and crazy guy" who is also an accomplished banjoist) and Edie Brickell, vocalist with the 1980s folk-rock group The New Bohemians (the pair collaborated on the music and Brickell wrote the lyrics). In 2013 Brickell and Martin collaborated on a chart-topping bluegrass album called Love Has Come for You. Two of the songs the pair wrote for the album found their way to Bright Stara yearning song of love slipping away, "Asheville," and the hopeful "Sun's Gonna Shine." However, it was another song on their album, an old ballad based on a true story, "Sarah Jane and the Iron Mountain Baby," that contains the seeds of Bright Star.
That story involved a boy in Missouri in 1902 who was dubbed the Iron Mountain Baby. From that kernel of truth, Martin and Brickell spun a tale (with Martin credited for the book), pushing the date up to 1922 and the setting to the southern Appalachians. The show's central character, Alice Murphy, is a high-spirited teenager in small-town Zebulon, North Carolina, angling for Jimmy Ray Dobbs, the suave, good-looking son of their town's corrupt mayor. Alice pushes for what she wants in life, against the wishes of her deeply pious parents and the greedy mayor, and pays a dear price for her strong will.
The narrative pivots back and forth between that early 1920s time frame and 1945, when an aspiring young writer, Billy Cane, returns from World War II service overseas to his town, Hayes Creek, North Carolina. Determined to find success as a writer, Billy leaves behind his father and his childhood friend Margowho clearly sees Billy as something moreto make his mark in the literary center that was Asheville. There, his path intersects with Alice Murphy, who has become the hard-bitten editor of a prestigious literary magazine drawing on the rich talent of Southern writers. Over the course of the show's two acts, the time frames and the plotlines reach common ground in an altogether satisfying conclusionthe type that brings suckers for a sentimental story like myself near to tears.
While that core of a true story is at the bottom of Bright Star, Martin and Brickell have fabricated numerous characters, conflicts, and fateful incidents, crafting a narrative that is fresh and engaging. If there are times when an astute observer might guess what lies ahead, Martin's book skillfully keeps us focused on the narrative as it unspools, staying connected to Alice, Jimmy Ray, and Billy as they wade through the currents of their lives.
The focus on characters and narrative is given a tremendous boost by Scott Ford's effective direction, as he adroitly guides the narrative through transitions between time periods and bridging moods from tenderness to despair to jubilation. Ford's accomplishment is bolstered by Elisa Santa's outstanding music direction, critical to this show in which the music is such a vital component, heightening the emotions felt by its characters as surely as an operatic score.
The production has been cast wonderfully, with Katie Strom Rozanas a standout as Sally Murphy. Rozanas has a gorgeous, full voice that greets us from the very start of Bright Star, enjoining us to understand the strain she has been through ("If You Knew My Story"). She continues to soar in the melancholic "Way Back in the Day," to express selfless love in "I Can't Wait," frenzied anguish in "Please, Don't Take Him," resolute hope in "Sun's Gonna Shine," and, paired with Chris Paulson as Jimmy Ray, gives deeply moving voice to her sorrows in "I Had a Vision." She manages to create believable depictions of Alice as a feisty 16-year-old and as a high-powered professional whose losses in love are concealed beneath her caustic wit.
Chris Paulson ably conveys an emotional range in his depiction of a young man who transcends the callow years of his youth, and sings beautifully, both as a care-free boy ("Whoa, Mama"), engaging in gentle seduction ("What Could Be Better"), revealing his tender nature ("I Can't Wait"), and crashing beneath the weight of unbearable loss ("Heartbreaker"). As Billy, Cam Pederson brings a charming boyishness, along with another strong voice, to his performance, leading the rousing title song and dancing up a storm in the comical "Another Round," showing special flair in executing Heidi Spesard-Noble's appropriately rustic choreography.
The supporting roles are all cast superbly as well. As Margo, Maureen O'Malley captures the mix of eternal hope and frustration over Billy's preoccupation with his writing life, pouring her heartand lovely voiceinto her rendition of "Asheville." Steve Ramirez is wonderfully sinister as Jimmy Ray's villainous father, injecting venom into "A Man's Gotta Do," while Robert Zalazar, as Billy's father, projects paternal pride and warmth, and movingly conveys the heartache of "She's Gone." Jan Joseph and Peter Aitchison bring the right notes to their portrayal's of Alice's mother and father, while Nykeigh Larson and Carl Swanson make a sharp pair as Alice's employees at the magazine, providing comic relief with precision timing. Those in smaller roles, along with the singing ensemble, all add to the high quality of this production.
Design credits are all of high caliber, with a lovely backdrop of the North Carolina hills in various shades of blue, providing a sense of environmental unity across the time frames and different locations. Katie Phillips has designed simple sets that place the ten-member band on a wood frame platform, framed in lateral wood slats lit from behind (Shannon Elliott, lighting designer), with blue lights that, along with the backdrop, give a feeling of a bygone era to the entire production.
Lyric Arts Main Street Stage has given the Twin Cities the gift of our region's first look at this fine musical that deserves recognition and audiences. They have bestowed upon Bright Star, a production that works in every way, bringing out all that is good and lovely and memorable in Martin and Brickell's work. As for the long drive from parts of the metro to Anoka, at least the ride home should go quickly, as you will likely be occupied whistling the catchy melodies of its well-crafted score.
Bright Star runs through September 29, 2019, at Lyric Arts Main Street Stage, 420 East Main Street, Anoka MN. Tickets are priced from $32.00 - $35.00, seniors (60+) and students with ID: $30.00 - $33.00. Subject to availability, $15.00 rush tickets are available starting 30 minutes before curtain. For information and tickets call 763-422-1838 or visit lyricarts.org.
Music: Steve Martin and Edie Brickell; Lyrics: Edie Brickell; Book: Steve Martin, from a story by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell; Director: Scott Ford; Music Director: Elise Santa; Choreographer: Heidi Spesard-Noble, Scenic and Properties Design: Katie Phillips; Costume Design: Samantha Kuhn Staneart; Lighting Design: Shannon Elliot; Sound Design: Paul Estby; Assistant Props Design: Krisie Galligher; Stage Manager: Pat Campbell; Assistant Stage Managers: Lea Brucker, Zachariah Kunshier.
Cast: Peter Aitchison (Daddy Murphy), Dillon Baxendell (Max), Scott Dutton (Stanford), Jan Joseph (Mama Murphy), Nykeigh Larson (Lucy), Maddie Olsem (Florence), Maureen O'Malley (Margo), Chris Paulson (Jimmy Ray Dobbs), Cam Pederson (Billy Cane), Steve Ramirez (Mayor Dobbs), Katie Strom Rozanas (Alice Murphy), Carl Swanson (Daryl), Brendan Veerman (Dr. Nordquist) Lillian Walker (Edna), Robert Zalazar (Daddy Cane). Ensemble: Caitlin Featherstone, Siri Hammond, Audrey Johnson, Jared Mogen, Margaret Reid, Elinor Strandskov.