Review: Musical Theatre West presents Regional Premiere of Endearingly Powerful Musical "Bright Star"

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Michael L. Quintos

  • Associate Los Angeles Critic

A pleasing, under-appreciated little gem of a musical, "Bright Star"—the quiet yet surprisingly powerful bluegrass musical crafted by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell—is, thankfully, getting a second chance at local stage glory as Musical Theatre West's highly anticipated 66th Season opener.

Nominated for five 2016 Tony Awards and the winner of the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best New Broadway Musical, MTW's regional theatre premiere production which opened earlier this week continues its much too-brief run through November 4, 2018 at the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts in Long Beach, CA. At the helm is Richard Gatta, who is tasked to re-create not only the original Broadway direction of Walter Bobbie but also the original Broadway choreography of Josh Rhodes.

Endearing and emotionally sweeping, "Bright Star" is a no-frills, narrative-driven musical that's less about flash and more about its human-connective qualities, the very ones that will likely touch audience members in a much more cerebral, satisfying way. While it is seemingly intimate in execution, just below its rustic surfaces lay a more epic, modern-minded musical that's mired in heartbreak and tragedy—but yet still ultimately enveloped in hope, triumph, and love. It may not have the bombast of "Wicked" or "Hamilton," but it certainly has its own kind of mettle.

Armed with a touching though slightly predictable period story (reportedly based on true events) and a lively and melodic songbook from Martin and Brickell, "Bright Star" had, on the surface, all the trappings of a great new musical when it first debuted on Broadway—including a star-making performance from lead actor Carmen Cusack, which she beautifully reprised last year during the musical's well-received national tour debut at Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre.

It is at that engagement in L.A. last year when I first experienced the musical (I had missed its pre-Broadway try-out at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre), and was instantly smitten not only by its quieter, less gargantuan machinations but also by its surprisingly earworm-like musical score, that, for me, felt very much like gospel music but with a slight country twang. I cannot say wholeheartedly that I am a fan of bluegrass music genre, but in the context of "Bright Star"—and the way it is wonderfully folded into the DNA of the story—I genuinely became a fan.

Of course, it helped tremendously to hear Cusack—one of the most talented Broadway actor-singers I have ever heard in my many decades as a theatergoer—belt those songs effortlessly, bathed with all the emotional gravitas and unbridled joy needed for the role of Alice Murphy, the woman at the center of "Bright Star."

But to my utter delight, I had the same happy reaction the very second Anna Mintzer—who admirably plays Alice in MTW's winning regional premiere—began singing during the show's catchy opener "If You Knew My Story." It is then and there—surrounded by a beautiful-sounding ensemble cast and a rousing orchestra under the baton of musical director Dennis Castellano—that I knew that this new production will be just as enjoyable as my first time seeing the show.

And the awesome bonus? This first-ever regional production of the musical features both the original Broadway sets designed by Eugene Lee and the original Broadway costumes designed by Jane Greenwood to complete the faithful re-creation.

Despite the melodramatic soapy storyline at its core, the back-and-forth dual timelines that drive the narrative presented in "Bright Star" still genuinely tugs at your heart strings, making it easily one of the more emotionally stirring dramatic musicals in recent memory.

At first glance, the musical seems to be centered on two divergent characters living separate lives in North Carolina in 1945 that soon meet and affect each other  profoundly. On one side is 22-year-old army vet Billy Cane (Taubert Nadalini), who has just returned home to his small hometown of Hayes Creek after fighting in World War II. On the other side is Alice Murphy (Mintzer), the stern but highly-respected magazine editor of the Asheville Southern Journal who, like Billy, grew up in a small town.

An aspiring writer, Billy, naturally, hopes to have his stories published one day. Eventually, he gets enough nerve to storm into the Asheville Southern Journal headquarters in Asheville to see if he could convince Alice to give a young writer a chance. Though Alice originally refuses Billy's pleas, she recognizes something promising in the talented young man and encourages him to keep submitting pages in the hopes that one day one of his writings may end up on the pages of the Journal.

"Liars make good storytellers," Alice advises Billy after catching him in a lie. Well, she does speak from experience

Perhaps because the utterly optimistic Billy reminds Alice a lot of her past self, his arrival has somehow suddenly triggered flashbacks for Alice—flashbacks to a very volatile time in her youth in the 1920's in which a series of significant, life-changing events ultimately shaped the adult woman she becomes. It is at this point in the musical when the audience truly realizes that "Bright Star" is indeed, as Alice sings in the opening number, really about her journey. It is definitely her story to tell… one that has put her through hell and involves losing love multiple times.

There, 20 years in the past, in the rural backwoods of the Blue Ridge Mountains, we meet teenage Alice, a wild and headstrong girl who is head-over-heels in love with town hottie Jimmy Ray Dobbs (a superb Devin Archer), much to the protests of his perpetually furious dad, the town mayor, Josiah Dobbs (Sean Smith). Drunk with power (and, well, alcohol), the Mayor will do anything—and we mean anything—he can to prevent his son from deviating from the righteous, financially-ensuring path he has already chosen for him.

Fast forward two decades later, and Alice, despite her professional success, is clearly still haunted by the events of her youth. Understandably, she is still looking for some much-needed closure to help her heal and move on. Is her mentorship of Billy the key to her salvation?

Subtle in stage craft but wholly immersive in emotional resonance, the highly enjoyable "Bright Star" feels like the Little Musical That Could, driven by, yes, a convoluted, twist-filled story, but is paired with pleasing, richly textured songs that genuinely carry that aforementioned twist-filled story forward. While it is quite easy to just dismiss the narrative as a soap opera throwback, I believe that audiences will look past these dramatic histrionics and be invested enough in the welfare of these characters, particularly Alice, whose rough journey will be rewarded with collective empathy and massive applause.

"Bright Star" is a fairly recent musical that may still be fresh to a lot of Southern California theatergoers who caught last year's tour in L.A. So I feel it was a good move for MTW to remount essentially the same Broadway-caliber production, retaining the flavor and consistency of a show that has already elicited positive reactions from the public in its original incarnation. Aside from bringing in the original sets and costumes (now paired with Jean Yves Tessier's enhanced lighting design and Michon Gruber-Gonzales' wigs), I re-welcomed this regional premiere's staging which seems fairly similar to the original.

Having some of the show's live musicians be "housed" once again inside the spinning rustic cabin—a character itself, in my opinion—was a memorable component of the original production, so having it prominently featured again in this regional premiere is also a great decision. Director Gatta, who appeared in the original production, did well in recreating much of what already worked the first time around, thereby ensuring a working production that zips from scene to scene with transitional ease and that audiences will simply adore.

The songs, it bears repeating, are beautiful, genre-perfect compositions—ranging from rousing up-tempo barn-raisers to melancholy ballads that pierce the heart. I shed a tear or two the first time I heard "Please, Don't Take Him" when I saw the national tour last year, but it took MTW's impressive regional premiere to get me teary-eyed during Alice and Jimmy Ray's duet in "I Had A Vision"—a devastating song that both Archer and Mintzer beautifully performed.

And speaking of beautiful performances, Mintzer is such a terrific find in the role of Alice. Her performance not only captured the brave front of an older woman whose pain is deeply imbedded, she also projected a more vivacious younger teen who, tragically, grows up too quickly. Her singing voice is spectacular and can equally convey joy and sorrow effortlessly.

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The production can also boast an excellent ensemble cast that offers great support as scene partners and as a frequent choir of harmonious powerhouse voices and energetic dance moves. Archer turns in great work as both the teenage and adult Jimmy Ray, with the added bonus of having a distinguished singing voice. Smith, as Jimmy Ray's menacing father Josiah, is convincingly gruff and intimidating.

Also worth noting is Nadalini, who is an endearing charmer as Billy, the eager young writer. He has great, cute-sy chemistry with sweet-faced Paige Herschell who plays his childhood pal turned lovely girl-next-door Margo Crawford. David Atkinson, who plays Billy's dad, and Ted Barton and Rayna Hickman, who play Alice's parents all turn in memorable turns in their respective roles. Meanwhile Ryan Dietz and Rachelle Rose provide welcome comical respites as Daryl and Lucy, respectively, Alice's hilarious office employees who have great, harmless fun at young Billy's expense.

If you live in Southern California and missed the show's L.A. tour stop last year, now is the time to catch this lovely little musical in its absolute pristine form—meticulously re-created from the original source materials and featuring a tight ensemble of enormously talented individuals that produce glorious sounds. Unless your heart is as cold as ice, "Bright Star" will handily win you over right from the start, then make you emotional, and then even later, embrace you tightly in a great big bear hug, as if to ensure you that even in the bleakest of situations, there is always a bright light in the distance that can guide you to where you need to be.


Musical Theatre West presents "BRIGHT STAR"

Music, Book and Story by Steve Martin. Music, Lyrics and Story by Edie Brickell.

Originally directed by Walter Bobbie and originally choreographed by Josh Rhodes, recreated for MTW by Richard Gatta.

"Bright Star" features Anna Mintzer, Devin Archer, Taubert Nadalini, Sean Smith, Paige Herschell, David Atkinson, Ted Barton, Rayna Hickman, Rachelle Rose Clark, and Ryan Dietz. Also features Rachel McLaughlan, David Kirk Grant, Kevin McMahon, Mackenzie Perpich, Nikki Elena Spies, Scott McLean Harrison, and Ricky Bulda.

"Bright Star" features original scenic design by Eugene Lee, original costume design by Jane Greenwood, lighting design by Jean-Yves Tessier, sound design by Audio Production Geeks LLC, wig design by Michon Gruber-Gonzales, and musical direction by Dennis Castellano.

Performances of Musical Theatre West's production of "Bright Star" continue through Sunday, November 4, 2018. The Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts is located at 6200 E. Atherton Street in Long Beach, CA. For tickets or for more information, please call 562-856-1999 x4 or visit online at www.musical.org.

Photos © Caught In The Moment Photography/Musical Theatre West.

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