OnStage Chief New York Theatre Critic
“And I understood that truth seeks us out - then walks beside us like a shadow, and one day it merges with us. Until it does, we are not truly whole.” (Billy to Miss Murphy)
Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s “Bright Star” is a welcomed infusion of optimism into the veins of the Broadway stage and a delightful breath of fresh air in the current theatrical season. It is an old fashioned Broadway musical with pleasing music, agreeable lyrics, and an engaging book that celebrates the strength of the human spirit and the redemptive power of unconditional and nonjudgmental love – a celebration of storytelling and the themes that undergird the importance of hope.
Because the characters in “Bright Star” are well-rounded and have universal conflicts that the audience can easily identify and connect with, the musical’s story is also universal and engaging. Its themes are important and life affirming. Portraying events in two different time periods can be a daunting task but Steve Martin and Edie Brickell succeed in counterpointing Billy Cane’s (A. J. Shively) and Alice Murphy’s (Carmen Cusack) journey across two decades to find what has been missing in their lives. Their stories are complicated and better left for the audience to unravel. It is enough to say that the stories develop in interesting ways with wonderful surprises and address the wonderful gift of a truth that “seeks us out” until “it merges with us” making us “truly whole.”
The cast, under Walter Bobbie’s careful direction is uniformly magnificent – wonderful to watch and outstanding to hear. Broadway newcomer Carmen Cusack knows how to deliver a country song and, right from the beginning, her Alice Murphy commands the stage and massages the hearts of the audience with authentic joy and hopefulness. Ms. Cusack shines in “If You Knew My Story,” “Sun Is Gonna Shine,” “So Familiar,” and “At Long Last.” A. J. Shively’s performance as Billy Cane is multi-layered and honest to the core. Mr. Shively delivers “Always Will” with tenderness and understanding. Paul Alexander Nolan has the difficult task of portraying Jimmy Ray Dobbs a complex character whose motives are conflicted, at times reprehensible, but ultimately redemptive. Mr. Nolan succeeds and delivers an authentic character capable of growth and grace. His “Heartbreaker” is honest and genuine.
Stephen Bogardus portrays Daddy Cane with honesty and believability. His early first act tribute to his character’s loss (with A. J. Shively) is an emotional anchor for the scene. One longs to hear more from this vocalist in the musical. Emily Padgett (Lucy Grant), Michael Mulheren (Mayor Josiah Dobbs), and Hannah Elless (Margo Crawford) all add their considerable craft to the success of “Bright Star.” Stephen Lee Anderson and Dee Hoty handle the complex characters Daddy Murphy and Mama Murphy with refined performances, particularly evidenced in “Firmer Hand/Do Right” and “Please Don’t Take Him.”
The ensemble transfixes the audience as the members execute Josh Rhodes’ exquisite choreography with a superb gracefulness and energy. Mr. Rhodes’ work does not merely complement the action of the musical, his movement is a character with a soul and a purpose. Eugene Lee’s scenic design works primarily because of the energy of the ensemble cast who move sets on and off seamlessly. The house-cum-bandstand sometimes seems intrusive but manages to complement the action most of the time. Jane Greenwood is an icon. Her costumes here are able to span two decades with subtle changes in hue, color, and design and with marvelous movement that counterpoint the choreography with perfection. And Japhy Weideman creates pure magic with his transcendent lighting that creates space and mood and memories.
“Bright Star” is not perfect – some of the story seems contrived and sometimes predictable – but director Walter Bobbie keeps the musical moving forward with an intensity and freshness that is remarkable and noteworthy. There are scenes that are pure magic and utilize the skills of the cast and creative team in perfect harmony. Alice Murphy’s story is one you will celebrate knowing and come away loving and remembering.
The cast of “Bright Star” includes Stephen Lee Anderson, Jeff Blumenkrantz, Stephen Bogardus, Carmen Cusack, Hannah Elless, Dee Hoty, Michael Mulheren, Paul Alexander Nolan, Emily Padgett, and A.J. Shively along with 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 and William Youmans.
“Bright Star’s” creative team includes 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 and wig design by Tom Watson, musical supervision by Peter Asher, musical direction and vocal arrangements by Rob Berman, orchestrations by August Eriksmoen, and casting by Howie Cherpakov. Production photos by Nick Stokes.
“Bright Star” runs at the Cort Theatre (138 West 48th Street) on the following schedule: on the following schedule: Tuesday and Thursday at 7:00 p.m.; Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday at 8:00 p.m.; matinees Wednesday and Saturday at 2:00 p.m.; and matinee on Sunday at 3:00 p.m. Tickets at $45.00 - $149.00 can be purchased by visiting Telecharge.com or by calling 800-447-7400. For groups of 10 or more, call 1-800-BROADWAY, ext. 2. For more info, visit www.BrightStarMusical.com. Running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes including one intermission