Susan Granger’s review of “Bright Star” (Cort Theatre – April, 2016)
Country is the most popular music in America, so it’s no surprise that Steve Martin and Edie Brickell bring down-home bluegrass to Broadway, opening with Carmen Cusack’s powerhouse song, “If You Knew My Story.”
Inspired by a real-life 1902 incident, Martin’s sweetly sincere book, which he developed with Brickell, begins in 1945, as a W.W. II soldier, Billy Cane (A.J. Shively), returns to Hayes Creek, North Carolina. He’s greeted by his love-smitten childhood pal, Margo Crawford (Hannah Elless), and his father (Stephen Bogardus), who tells him is mother died in his absence.
An aspiring writer, Billy’s so determined to be published in the Asheville Southern Journal that he hand-delivers several stories to its renown, tart-tongued editor Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack).
Prompted by her assistants (Jeff Blumenkrantz, Emily Padgett), the focus shifts to Alice’s past in the 1920s when, as a free-spirited teenager in Zebulon, she fell in love with Jimmy Ray (Paul Alexander Nolan), son of Mayor Josiah Dobbs (Michael Mulheren), and got pregnant.
This gentle fable of pain and redemption is punctuated by lovelorn ballads, fiddle-playing hootenannies and convivial square-dancing, superbly staged by director Walter Bobbie (“Chicago”), who seamlessly integrates Josh Rhodes’ rollicking choreography.
With a rustic A-frame cabin that rotates and model train running on tracks located high above the audience, Eugene Lee’s versatile set is backed by an evocative cut-out of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Some of the musicians are placed within the cabin, others high up on both sides of the stage, plucking the banjo, mandolin, guitar, viola and violin, and keeping rhythm on the drums.
Beginning as a 2013 workshop production at the Vassar & New York Stage and Film Powerhouse Theater in Poughkeepsie, “Bright Star” was staged at the Old Globe in San Diego and then at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. – with major changes occurring in the development process. Some of the music was also on Martin/Brickell’s 2013 Grammy-winning album “Love Has Come For You.”
Aimed at a mainstream audience, eager to experience ebullient, up-beat Americana, “Bright Star” is a musical “must-see.”