“If you knew my story, you’d have a good story to tell.” This first line carries over the folk orchestra during the opening number of the Tony-nominated musical Bright Star, by written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell. A new production of this musical, which played Broadway last year, now tours the West coast with some of the original cast and creative team, including the powerhouse vocals of Tony-nominee Carmen Cusack. But while this production has a story to tell, some say it’s a story that some have heard before.
Bright Star is set against the backdrop of the American South, jumping back and forth between the 1920s and the 1940s, as literary editor Alice Murphy encounters a young soldier who has returned home from World War II. The connection she makes with this military vet turned writer sparks an exploration into her past, and the unresolved mysteries surrounding the events of her adolescence. This musical is a testament to the human pursuit of truth and the resilience of family bonds standing the test of time.
It was great to see the blend of original cast members and those new to this musical. Carmen Cusack as Alice Murphy lead this show with her enchanting vocals and sharp wit. Her ability to tap into such raw emotions, and unwavering confidence switching between the younger and older Alice, spoke volumes to her critical acclaim. A.J. Shively brought an endearing curiosity and innocence to the role of the young soldier Billy Cane. Jeff Blumenkrantz and Kaitlyn Davidson played assistants to Alice Murphy, a hilarious duo that lifted no finger, or glass, when stealing a scene. Rounding out the cast were Patrick Cummings as the Mayor’s son and Alice’s lover and Maddie Shea Baldwin as librarian and romantic Margo Crawford, a ray of light who kept Billy Cane grounded to his hometown roots.
Bright Star had a six-piece band that traveled around the stage in a life size Southern home. Eugene Lee’s brilliant yet simple scenic design allowed to actors to easily manipulate and navigate through the house on stage, while spotlighting musicians in the middle of the action. Speaking of the music, there is a reason Steve Martin and Edie Brickell were nominated for a Grammy for their work. Bright Star contains a soulful and passionately infused folk-country score that you don’t often hear in a Broadway musical. It’s one of those scores where you will replay the cast album, repeatedly listening to each song.
Lastly, we get to the story. Many people I have talked to say their major critique of this musical is a very predictable book. I think Bright Star sets up well developed characters with clear motives and goals, along with conflict and a darkness at its core that I wasn’t expecting. However, by the end of the first act, the resolution and questions set up by this story were easily figured out. Is this musical predictable? Eventually, yes. The identity of the result of Alice’s mysterious past is easily figured out, and I think the ending is wrapped up too tight to my liking without much resolution.
But despite the somewhat obvious outcome, I focused on the result. Predictable yes, but also done very well. I enjoyed the score and the modest plot, with enough drama that kept my interest. It’s a beautiful show that deserves more credit than it’s been given. I would recommend Bright Star not only for the music and performances, but also the message laid out at its core: the strength of family and the human spirit. While not the typical holiday show, Bright Star finds an audience with its values of love, connection, and redemption as we head into the new year. What a story that is to tell.
Jordan Nickels is a playwright and dramaturg, originally from the Midwest, with a Bachelor of Science in Theatrical Studies from Ball State University. He previously worked with Nashville Children’s Theatre, Goodspeed Opera House, Florida Studio Theatre, and The Walt Disney Company. He also served as a Blog Contributor and Managing Editor for over two years at Camp Broadway in New York City. Jordan currently resides in San Francisco, CA and works as a Development Assistant at American Conservatory Theater. Website: http://www.jordannickels.com, Twitter and Instagram: @jnickels8
Photo: Joan Marcus