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BWW Review: Carmen Cusack Shines In Steve Martin and Edie Brickell's Southern Gothic BRIGHT STAR


It's never a good idea to have a secondary character with a secret mutter, "I knew this day would come," near the end of act two, especially when the audience was ready for it to come seven or eight songs ago.

Carmen Cusack and Paul Alexander Nolan
(Photo: Nick Stokes)

Despite all of its pleasant earnestness and the genuine talent behind its creation, the new Southern Gothic musical by Steve Martin (story, book and music) and Edie Brickell (story, lyrics and music), Bright Star, shows all the signs of being written by a pair who have not quite grasped some of the basics of the genre's craft.

While it's fine to have a predictable story if the textures along the way evoke empathy and passion, it's a crime against the theatre gods to give your star a lot of stage time, but no real chance for her character to connect with the audience until late in the game when she gets to stand center stage belting out the 11 o'clocker.

The cheers that will undoubtedly shower the wonderful Carmen Cusack at the end of that number throughout her vehicle's run are greatly deserved. If one could muster up the same affection for the woman she plays, Bright Star might shine accordingly.

"If you knew my story, you'd have a good story to tell," sings Cusack's Alice as the show commences. It's the kind of warmhearted, catchy opening song that can easily be enjoyed out of the narrative, but the lyric's sentiment lingers in one place until Alice disappears and another character's story gets established first.

Similarly, after music director Rob Berman's terrific onstage ensemble plays a lively entr'acte, Cusack opens the second act with the score's best effort, "Sun's Gonna Shine," a feel-good anthem that was written and recorded by Martin and Brickell before they even thought about collaborating on a musical. This lack of lyrical specificity plagues much of the score, limiting variety in the way the characters express themselves. When the authors do deliver a pair of dramatic second act songs to serve the storytelling, the music and lyrics are embarrassingly heavy-handed.

Inspired by a true event and set in the hills of North Carolina, the plot gets underway when young Billy (A.J. Shively) returns from World War II, seemingly unscathed by the experience ("I'm ready for my life to begin," he sings.) and determined to make it big as a writer.

Encouraging him all the way is the sweet Margo Crawford (Hannah Elless), who fends off lecherous advances at the bookstore where she works as she longs for Billy to return her affection.

Michael Pearce, Bennett Sullivan, Rob Berman
and Martha McDonnell (Photo: Nick Stokes)

When Alice does enter the picture, she's the tough-minded, dry-humored editor of the highly regarded Asheville Southern Journal; a woman with standards so high she once drove Ernest Hemingway to tears. While Billy's writing isn't fit for her publication yet, she takes a liking to him.

She also takes a series of flashbacks to the 1920s, recalling her teenage relationship with Jimmy Ray (dynamic singer/dancer Paul Alexander Nolan), the mayor's son. Michael Mulheren, seething with menace, plays the mayor and the manner in which he breaks up their relationship brings the first act to what would be a horrific end if the stage effect executing it wasn't such a letdown.

Walter Bobbie, who transitioned his career from being a terrific musical comedy performer to being a director of shows that burst with show-biz panache (the long-running CHICAGO revival, WHITE CHRISTMAS), gets the occasional opportunity to liven up the action, especially when he hands the stage to Emily Padgett, as a sassy journal employee, and Jeff Blumenkrantz, as a co-worker and wannabe writer. Their jokes aren't the best, but they pop them off of each other with flair.

For a musical about literary folk, Bright Star's words never approach the stimulating freshness and intelligence of other current musicals about writers; namely HAMILTON, FUN HOME, the revival of SHE LOVES ME and Off-Broadway's DADDY LONG LEGS. Nice music, fine performances, but other than that, barely a twinkle.

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From This Author Michael Dale