Review: “Bright Star” at Firehouse Theatre

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  • Shawn Stalter, Chief Dallas/Ft. Worth Critic

FARMER’S BRANCH, TX - Firehouse Theatre turned up the heat in the local theatre scene with their scorching-hot regional premiere of the celebrated Broadway musical, “Bright Star.” The phenomenally-talented cast assembled here crafted an intimate, genuine and engaging production infused with a perfect balance of wide-eyed optimism, young love, heart-wrenching tragedy and inspiring redemption.

Written and composed by the dynamic duo of multitalented actor, writer and musician, Steve Martin, and gifted singer-songwriter Edie Brickell, “Bright Star” takes the audience on a journey to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina during the 1920s and 1940s. Through a unique fusion of Americana and musical theatre, “Bright Star” tells the story of two distinct periods in the life of Zebulon native “Alice Murphy.” First, we see her as a restless young woman, full of life and longing to escape the confines of her small hometown. She falls in love with the mayor’s son, “Jimmy Ray Dobbs,” but her world is soon turned upside down by external influences she cannot control. Two decades later, we reconnect with her as a prominent, yet subdued spinster, big city magazine editor. The events of her life place her on a direct course to meet a talented young aspiring writer, “Billy Cane” and help define this intimate musical journey based on an actual event from the early 1900s.

“Bright Star” transcends the boundaries of time and space and opens both eyes and hearts to the transformative power of love and the vital role it often plays in paving a path to redemption. The story it shapes crafts a unique space which, in a relatively short time, traverses deep emotional waters. Unlike so many other modern productions, the intimacy which develops between characters in this show doesn’t feel rushed, but matures naturally through authentic interactions. This genuine intimacy separates “Bright Star” from so many contemporary works thriving on sugary-sweet superficiality, outlandish melodrama and vapid, hollow plots. Instead, “Bright Star” outshines peers with a brilliantly-crafted script and soars even higher backed by its heartfelt, Grammy-nominated, toe-tapping bluegrass score.

Firehouse Theatre’s production, fueled by exceptional stage design, not only seamlessly flows back and forth between two storylines decades apart, but it also tied them together to tell a sincere, nuanced and coherent story. In the hands of director, Tyler Jeffrey Adams, Firehouse Theatre’s “Bright Star” expertly wove all characters and ensemble musicians into its rich Carolinian tapestry to build an immersive and fully-engaging space for audiences to explore.

“Bright Star’s” Grammy-nominated bluegrass score is not just a convenient musical accompaniment to the plot; it is an integral part of the production equally vital to telling the story as the dialogue. Director Tyler Jeffrey Adams aptly sums up the valuable role the music plays in this show by stating that, “It's infectious! This score brings us back to the original roots of bluegrass. There is truly no Broadway musical with a score like this one. Steve Martin and Edie Brickell gifted us a masterpiece.”

Beyond an exceptionally original story and award-winning score, Firehouse Theatre’s production was a resounding success due to the combined raw talent present on stage. Leading the charge, the supremely-talented Chicago-based actress Lucy Shea, in the starring role of “Alice Murphy” gave the audience a remarkably sincere and unforgettable performance. While seamlessly flashing back and forth to play both younger and older versions of her character, she maintained splendid continuity between the two. Her voice, sweet as honeysuckle on the vine, channeled a charming twang and deeply invested her into each number. From the opener, “If You Knew My Story,” throughout the show and up to the surging finale, Lucy Shea leveraged her incredible voice to rocket this production into the stratosphere.

She even took some time out of her busy rehearsal schedule to offer her perspective on her character and the themes explored in “Bright Star.” When asked which elements of this story, which takes place nearly a century ago, connect most with modern audiences, she stated, “I think women today can relate to Alice, a strong, independent, flawed, and deeply passionate woman who keeps fighting, keeps loving, and keeps hoping in the midst of challenges.”

She also offered perspective on the underlying themes explored in “Bright Star” saying that “...some of the strongest themes in the show are the transcendent power of love and the hope of redemption, no matter how painful and difficult your story is. “

When asked if she had any advice to offer the rapidly-expanding community of up-and-coming performing artists in the DFW-area, she said “be kind to anyone they meet and be a good listener…. and realize that you are more than your career. A life in the performing arts can feel like a rollercoaster sometimes and if your identity is rooted in that, your mental and emotional wellbeing will be directly tied to that rollercoaster. Find a way to be grounded in who you are outside of your career.“

Although the star of the show, Lucy Shea was far from the only talent amassed on the Firehouse Theatre stage. Alongside her character of “Alice Murphy,” the young aspiring writer, “Billy Cane,” beautifully performed by Jason Craig West, aptly portrayed all of the wide-eyed optimism, ambition and heart of his character. Alex Branton in his role as “Jimmy Ray Dobbs” conjured a strong, stable and head-strong young man struggling for independence from an overbearing father. As “Billy Cane’s” father, “Daddy Cane”, the talented actor and musician Sonny Franks rounded out the production with his driving, top-tier performance.

At the conclusion of the show, the audience leaped to their feet for a thunderous standing ovation affirming what we all felt. “Bright Star” is something special, genuine and noteworthy and is an experience that DFW-area theatergoers absolutely cannot afford to miss.

 

“Bright Star” at Firehouse Theatre is directed by Tyler Jeffrey Adams and runs through June 9, 2019. The talented cast of this production includes, Lucy Shea in the role of “Alice Murphy,” Jason Craig West as “Billy Cane,” Sonny Franks performing the role of “Daddy Kane,” Alex Branton as “Jimmy Ray Dobbs,” Neil Rogers as “Mayor Josiah Dobbs,” Sara Shelby-Martin in her role as “Mama Murphy,” Martin Guerra-West as “Papa Murphy,” Emily Emmett as “Margo Crawford,” Morgan Maxey performing the role of “Lucy Grant,” Gabriel Ethridge as “Daryl Ames,” and Aaron Gallagher as “Stanford Adams.” Members of the ensemble include Aubrey Ferguson, Emily Grove, Kelly Holmes, Thi Le, Daniel Mooney, Darnell Robinson Jr. and Marcos Villegas.

Secure your seat for this PG-13 production by visiting thefirehousetheatre.com or call 972-620-3747 to speak directly to the box office.

Photo credit: Pendleton Photography