By Tulis McCall
There is a lot of yarn being spun in Bright Star, a sprawling tale that covers a few decades in North Carolina that lead to the end of WWII. It is spun by writers Steve Martin and Edie Brickell and is a story about writers and them what love ’em. It is as hokey a tale as you would find in any black and white movie form the 40’s and if Jimmy Stewart or Carole Lombard were to stroll onto the stage, no one in the audience on the night that I attended would have done a double-take.
The tale rests on the shoulders of the extraordinary Carmen Cusack in a Broadway debut that knocks the ball out of the park and out over the water. I smell a Tony nod for certain. This is her story she tells us, and although it takes a while for the story to reveal a clear direction (a few snips would not sacrifice anything in the book), once we understand the road we let go of the reins and let these folks take us for a ride.
Alice Murphy (Cusack) crosses paths with Billy Cane (A.J.Shivley) when he arrives fresh from the war with stories to tell. She is the editor and decision maker and would rival Nurse Ratched on a good day. She does, however, find Cane’s writing worthy – against the predictions of her hilarious (to us) staff played by Emily Padgett (Lucy Grant) and Jeff Blumenkrantz (Daryl Ames). But as it is her life we are witnessing, we also go back to the place it all began or, you should pardon the expression, went south.
As a young thing she fell hard in love with Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Paul Alexander Nolan) who fell hard back. He was the son of the mayor, however, and circumstances plus some dirty dealing pulled them apart. She has lived a life with a closed heart and a rich brain, but all that is about to change with the arrival of Billy Cane.
Although the sweet quotient on this production is through the rough – diabetics be forewarned – there is still the honest facts of pain and disappointment. As played by Ms. Cusack, Alice tumbles into the valleys of despair and soars on the peaks of joy with delicacy and focus. There are no drawn out moments of either, but rather the sense of putting one foot in front of another and hoping for the best, but not counting on it. Life is daily and hope is a non-renewable resource that must be measured out with care.
You can see the conclusion coming a mile away like a train light in a tunnel, but the show is so exquisite in every way that you don’t mind watching everything unfold. There’s more content than in needed, in particular “Another Round” which takes place in the local Asheville saloon but does nothing to further the story while it shows off Padget’s many talents. Songs go on a little long. Scenes could be trimmed. You get the feeling that Martin and Brickell fell in love with all these characters and couldn’t resist giving each of them voice.
This is understandable. The cast is a marvel of ensemble work, and Walter Bobbie’s direction is fluid and sweeping. Having the main orchestra members onstage was a wonderful choice that integrates the music into every facet of this tale.
All in all it is an evening that will take you out of the city and off to the mysterious magic of the Appalachians for two decades of stories that will get you in all the right places: Head, heart, and all the way down to the toes of your feet. Returning to the New York streets is so dramatic they should have someone make a “beginning our decent” announcement.
Bright StarMusic, book and story by Steve Martin; music, lyrics and story by Edie Brickell; directed by Walter Bobbie
WITH: Carmen Cusack (Alice Murphy), Paul Alexander Nolan (Jimmy Ray Dobbs), Michael Mulheren (Mayor Josiah Dobbs), A. J. Shively (Billy Cane), Hannah Elless (Margo Crawford), Stephen Bogardus (Daddy Cane), Dee Hoty (Mama Murphy), Stephen Lee Anderson (Daddy Murphy), Emily Padgett (Lucy Grant) and Jeff Blumenkrantz (Daryl Ames).
Choreography by Josh Rhodes; sets by Eugene Lee; costumes by Jane Greenwood; lighting by Japhy Weideman; sound by Nevin Steinberg; hair and wig design by Tom Watson; scenic design supervision by Edward Pierce; associate choreography by Lee Wilkins; orchestrations by August Eriksmoen; music coordinator, Seymour Red Press; production stage manager, Michael J. Passaro; company manager, Cathy Kwon; music supervisor, Peter Asher; music direction and vocal arrangements by Rob Berman. Presented by Joey Parnes, Sue Wagner, John Johnson, Zebulon LLC, Jay Alix and Una Jackman, Len Blavatnik, James L. Nederlander, Carson and Joseph Gleberman, Balboa Park Productions, the Shubert Organization, Jamie deRoy/Catherine Adler/Cricket Jiranek, in association with Rodger Hess, A. C. Orange International, Broadway Across America, Sally Jacobs and Warren Baker, Diana DiMenna, Exeter Capital, Agnes Gund, True Love Productions and the Old Globe. Ongoing at the Cort Theater, 138 West 48th Street, Manhattan; 212-239-6200, brightstarmusical.com. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.