Music, Book and Story by Steve Martin
Music, Lyrics and Story by Edie Brickell
Directed by Walter Bobbie
Cort Theatre
Official Website

Reviewed by David Spencer

Director-choreographer-performer Tommy Tune has said, of shows in tryout mode, that the only foolproof way to be sure something is working is to see it three times in succession; it almost always allows you to rule out the fluke of an overly friendly audience and the fluke of an idiosyncratically unresponsive one; if you get a solidly positive reaction two or three times, you know you’re in the slot. If you don’t, you know you have work to do. Which leads me to this:

            Because of a public transportation delay that made me miss the first 30 or so minutes of Bright Star, I was graciously permitted to attend a second time, which gave me the unusual perspective of seeing all of it once and most of it twice within a few days.

            I’ve been at the musicals game, as both dramatist and critic, long and unsentimentally enough to be able to read what an audience reveals about the effectveness of a show (be it my own or the work of others); and to read it objectively, quite apart from any personal feeling I might have. It’s not alchemy, interpretation nor projection, nor even a soft science: you can literally gauge, feel and clinically observe the manner of applause when a number buttons, the fullness of audience response to a joke, even the silent sound and tension of concentration; and then at the curtain call, the level and depth of aggregate enthusiasm and approval—it takes some practice, but once you have it down, its results brook no denial one way or the other; you can become as sensitive to gradations as a lie detector, and more accurate in your conclusion. And at my first and incomplete viewing of Bright Star, it seemed pretty clear that the show was unequivocally hitting its marks with the crowd. But I find, nonetheless, that with a show such as Bright Star, following the wisdom of Mr. Tune, it can instructive and even important for a critic to have that experience repeated.

            And that’s because Bright Star is one of those freak-of-nature musicals written by a team who, though they are each experienced showbiz veterans, have no formal breeding or training in musical theatre per se—comedian-author-actor-musician Steve Martin and bluegrass singer-songwriter Edie Brickell. They’ve made their way through the form basically via a combination of feel, and the guidance of their director, who is a Broadway veteran of some significance, Walter Bobbie. How their process evolved, how the show evolved concurrently, is the subject of various profile articles you can read online, but the end result fulfills the mission: the successful realization of a story inspired by an image in a song Martin & Brickell wrote for their album Love Has Come to You (a song not in the show). 

         The story follows two threads that become conjoined in a way that I thought was perfectly obvious midway through Act One, but that made the audience gasp upon revelation in Act Two. But those threads still provide enough of a plot to carry an evening (even if you do guess the mystery), and are delivered with enough verbal wit and enough sharp characterization to keep you engaged, and often charmed. The first thread concerns the “present-day” (the show’s present is 1945) desire of a young writer, Billy Cane (A.J. Shively) to establish himself as a writer of fiction; and the second thread involves his “big city” (Asheville, North Carolina) editor Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack), who has spent much of her private time trying to solve her own personal mystery, involving a lost love (Paul Alexander Nolan) and a lost child; that part of the story bounces back and forth between flashback to 22 years before (not all from her perspective; we’ll discover things she has yet to learn) and her ongoing exploration. And there are lots of colorful supporting characters, played by, among others, seasoned veterans like Michael Mulheren, Stephen Bogardus, Stephen Lee Anderson, Jeff Blumenkrantz and Dee Hoty; as well as newer faces like Hannah Elless and Emily Padgett. All of them are terrific, and Ms. Cusack emerges as a breakout star.

        The story is supported by a score almost totally absent of subtext (everybody sings with heart on sleeve; even the one true moment of self-deception—called “A Man’s Gotta Do [What a Man’s Gotta Do]” for a misguided father—is fantastically unsubtle), chock-a-block full of false rhymes and simplistic sentiment, and delivered via bluegrass palate, not as a filtering agent, but straight up and unvarnished by compositional technique or an expanded harmonic vocabulary. Yet, this is one of those non-theatre scores that locates a sweet spot in which—via a combination of context, rhythmic energy, catchiness and enough clear objective to be actable—theatricality is nonetheless achieved. You could remove almost all, maybe even completely all, of the songs and the libretto would still make total sense (generally not a good sign, because it means optimum appropriate integration is lacking); but again, because of whatever lightning in a bottle the alchemy of this team and that director have captured, the experience of the show somehow depends on those songs expanding what we already know, and there would be a severely diminished narrative without them; the story would make sense without them, but it’s the kind of story that would make no sense to tell if you didn’t have them. Music is just that essential to the fabric.

            As noted, the direction of Walter Bobbie has been key to shaping and guiding raw material to polished realization, but with material this…ohhh, let’s say (without any diminishment intended) folksy and unaffected…you need more to fill the evening than just clarity of purpose; and that’s provided by energizing, character-driven choreography, courtesy of Josh Rhodes, and high sophistication in the music department, giving authentic bluegrass the power to sustain on a theatrical level, and for that credit Rob Berman for vocal arrangements and music direction; and August Eriksmoen for orchestrations.

            Bright Star will never be a musical discussed in any serious survey of the literature or the tradition, because as a lightning-in-a-bottle concoction, it cannot be emulated successfully, nor can it have any meaningful impact upon the development of musical theatre as a form. But that won’t curtail its popularity either; for just as certainly, it will enter the literature, likely with the pedigree of a financial hit, and see many happy productions. Think what you will of it—and you’re likely to think well of it—Bright Star has a bright future.

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