Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham
Inspired by a true story, the musical takes place in two time periods in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. In 1945 we are introduced to Billy Cane (the talented Henry Gottfried), a soldier just returning to his home from the war with aspirations to become a writer. His immediate goal is to have one of his stories published in the Asheville Southern Journal, a prestigious literary magazine edited by the stern Alice Murphy (portrayed with dynamic versatility by Audrey Cardwell). Recognizing his ability to weave a tale, she agrees to take Billy on. The plot then begins to shift back and forth from the 1940s to the '20s, and we learn the story of a younger Alice, who comes from a humbler upbringing than we might have suspected. She was an idealistic rebel who fell in love with the mayor's son, Jimmy Ray Dobbs (a charismatic Patrick Cummings). The couple flouts the disapproval of both of their fathers, and the results shape Alice in profound and surprising ways.
Steve Martin, who has made a name for himself as a comedian and movie star, also has a well-deserved reputation as an accomplished banjoist and musician in the bluegrass community, having won a Grammy Award for his recordings. For Bright Star, he collaborated with Edie Brickell on the book and the music, and she wrote the lyrics. (Brickell has worked since the '80s as a singer/songwriter.) The quintessential folk songs are beautiful, and one can tell that these writers are in their element, creating a piece with strong personal resonance. Their score moves from heartbreaking to toe-tapping and effortlessly weaves the story together. This is important because the musical tells two stories, and one could easily get lost. (Be sure to pay attention to Alice's onstage costume change near the beginning.) There is just one noteworthy lost opportunity here, in the character of Billy, who deserves more development. Among the main characters he has the least amount of time alone to sing and share his thoughts.
Director Walter Bobbie (best known for his direction of the longest-running American musical on Broadway, the revival of Chicago, and a long stint as Artistic Director for the New York City Center's Encores! concert series) does what he does best, which is utilize minimal sets (provided here by Eugene Lee) and intimate staging to keep the focus on the characters and the actors who portray them. The predominant element is a planked shack of a house that usually holds the small band, and which is maneuvered gracefully by the cast into several configurations. In fact, the ensemble acts like specters of the past, who see the story unfold along with the audience. They frequently interact with the main characters, manipulating their movements and setting scenic elements around them. When they have finished, they sit quietly at the rear or side of the stage until needed again. The inventive image of a small locomotive that crosses above the stage at various times serves as an introduction and then a reminder to the audience of the integral part a train plays in the story.
Lighting design by Japhy Weideman stands in for scenery and deepens many moods, from the flashing lights of a locomotive to the lamps held by couples as they walk in the dark woods. Jane Greenwood's costumes are soft hued and simple yet evocative of their time periods. Josh Rhodes, as choreographer, has brought a rather straightforward musical to vibrant life, with constant movement on stage and fluid transitions between places and times. With full-out dance numbers like the rollicking "Another Round" as well as more gestural movements, Mr. Rhodes makes a key contribution as a storyteller in this production. One particularly inspired cinematic moment is a "freeze frame" within a scene that then rewinds back to the beginning pointa truly beautiful moment.
The true star of this production is Audrey Cardwell, whose beautiful singing voice soars throughout the lush score and who embodies Alice Murphy convincingly at both ages. She already has an accomplished resume, and I have no doubt that we will see much more amazing work from her in the future. Both Henry Gottfried and Patrick Cummings, as Billy Cane and Jimmy Ray Dobbs, have seasoned voices, though again, Mr. Gottfried should be given more opportunities to use his. As Daryl Ames, Jeff Blumenkrantz takes rightful advantage of his character's lines and walks away with some of the most humorous moments of the show.
Though this show struggled to find an audience in today's Broadway, where flashy spectacles with big name stars seem to sell the most tickets, and jukebox musicals have become the norm, there is much to be said for a quiet, sincere, and original musical that tells an engaging story through authentically fitting music. May this musical's "bright star" continue to shine to allow others to bask in its glow.
Bright Star, through April 22, 2018, in the Memorial Auditorium, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 East South St., Raleigh NC. Tickets can be purchased online at www.nctheatre.com or by phone at 919-831-6941, ext. 6944. For more information on the tour, visit www.brightstarmusical.com.
Music, Book, and Story: Steve Martin