Review Roundup: BRIGHT STAR Opens on Broadway - All the Reviews!
With direction by Tony Award winner Walter Bobbie and choreography by Josh Rhodes, Bright Star officially opens tonight, March 24, 2016 at Broadway's Cort Theatre (138 West 48th Street).
Carmen Cusack makes her Broadway debut as Alice, a role she originated in Bright Star's world premiere production in San Diego, and is joined by co-stars Paul Alexander Nolan, Tony Award nominee Michael Mulheren, A.J. Shively, Hannah Elless, Tony Award nominee Stephen Bogardus, three-time Tony Award nominee Dee Hoty, Stephen Lee Anderson, Emily Padgett and Tony Award nominee Jeff Blumenkrantz.
Inspired by a real event, this original musical tells a sweeping tale of love and redemption set against the rich backdrop of the American South in the 1920s and '40s. When literary editor Alice Murphy meets a young soldier just home from World War II, he awakens her longing for the child she once lost. Haunted by their unique connection, Alice sets out on a journey to understand her past - and what she finds has the power to transform both of their lives.
Let's see what the critics had to say...
Charles Isherwood, The New York Times: The musical is gentle-spirited, not gaudy, and moves with an easygoing grace where others prance and strut. And it tells a sentiment-spritzed story...that you might be more likely to encounter in black and white, flickering from your flat-screen on Turner Classic Movies. The protagonist, Alice Murphy, portrayed by Carmen Cusack -- making a simply gorgeous Broadway debut -- is a spunky girl in her late teens in the scenes set in the 1920s. A dreamer with a rebellious streak and a hunger for literature, she's causing a fine ruckus in the sleepy town of Zebulon...While the story certainly skirts (if not embraces) sentimentality and the overripeness of melodrama, the production's soft-hued style -- and the sometimes wry tone of Mr. Martin's book -- keeps it from curdling into treacle. The songs boast simple but seductive melodies, and lyrics that have a sweet, homespun quality.
Michael Dale, BroadwayWorld: 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.
Mark Kennedy, Associated Press: The new Broadway musical "Bright Star" starts with a bit of bluster, maybe even some swagger. "If you knew my story, you'd have a good story to tell," the leading lady sings. But after 2½ hours of this down-home hokum, the answer is clear: No, we don't. Comedian and banjo enthusiast Steve Martin has teamed up with singer-songwriter Edie Brickell to write a cliche-ridden, foot-pounding, over-eager Southern Gothic romance that ill serves a wonderful Broadway debut in Carmen Cusack. The show that opened Thursday at the Cort Theatre never hits an honest note and seems to have been written by two people who adore classic Broadway musicals but who have intentionally decided to make a third-rate version. The music, with a few exceptions, is weak...The book and lyrics are even more feeble, with graceless lines...and weird characters...Director Walter Bobbie gets everything out of his cast and keeps a frenetic pace going but for no clear payoff.
Marilyn Stasio, Variety: "Bright Star" is Broadway-slick under Walter Bobbie's direction...and an appealing lead performance from Carmen Cusack. But the sheer scale of the package overwhelms this sweet but slender homespun material...Eugene Lee's versatile set looks properly rustic while performing multiple dramatic duties...Martin is an accomplished banjo player and the sweetly melodic music he writes with Brickell sounds completely authentic. But after a bunch of choruses, they also sound repetitive...American roots music is grounded in the English narrative ballad, so it makes sense that Brickell's literate but plot-driven lyrics are intended to advance the story...The big drawback to the chatty lyrics is that they re-hash the plot's melodramatic content, but neglect to deepen or explore the characters.
David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter: A key inspiration for Bright Star was a real-life story from 1902, but the plot contrivances woven around that incident -- a lost infant, an encounter many years later between strangers unaware of their deep connection, a conveniently timed discovery and a rapturous happy ending, complete with matching betrothals -- are so fanciful that only Shakespeare could have gotten away with them. Still, there's a disarming sweetness and sincerity to this folksy Americana bluegrass musical, created by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, which makes the tuneful melodrama a pleasurable experience. It also helps that talented lead Carmen Cusack brings such integrity and warmth to her performance.
Adam Feldman, Time Out NY: "If you knew my story, you'd have a good story to tell," sings Alice (Carmen Cusack) in the introductory number of Bright Star. But would you know how to tell it? That's where Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, cowriters of this gawky tall tale, fall short...Bright Star aspires to be what the older Alice asks from a young fiction writer (A.J. Shively): "a sweeping tale of pain and redemption." But it cries out for an editor's sharp blue pen. Sweeping? In lieu of the color that the story seems to call for, Walter Bobbie's production is often actively plain, as though trying to hide its central bathos in beige. Painful? For the audience, perhaps, thanks to shoddy craftsmanship that saddles likable, plucky bluegrass music with lyrics that run from workmanlike to egregious. It does, however, have a genuine redeeming feature in Cusack...Cusack is distinctive and immediately interesting, convincing at playing Alice at both ages, with a voice that is full of beautiful surprises.
Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal: Steve Martin is, among many other things, a good banjo player who writes not-so-great plays. Now he's branched out by writing a really bad bluegrass-pop musical. In "Bright Star," directed by Walter Bobbie, Mr. Martin and Edie Brickell, a singer-songwriter with whom he has made two albums, tell the story of a painfully earnest young writer from the hills of North Carolina (A.J. Shively) who comes home from World War II and sells a painfully earnest short story to a prestigious Asheville quarterly edited by an unhappy woman (Carmen Cusack) with a terrible secret -- or, rather, a Terrible Secret, this being the kind of show that is constructed exclusively out of uppercase clichés. The best thing about "Bright Star" is the music, which is bland and undramatic but competently wrought. The plot is trite, the dialogue humorless and stiff, the lyrics stupefyingly banal...The cast and onstage band work hard and Mr. Bobbie does his best to breathe life into "Bright Star," but if Mr. Martin's name weren't on the marquee, it wouldn't have gotten anywhere near Broadway.
Robert Kahn, NBC New York: There's much to admire in the final product: The musical is twangy and tightly performed, with a sweeping score. My enjoyment was muted only by the mostly modest character development...Cusack, who reminded me a bit of Donna Murphy, does proud justice to a tough role. Paul Alexander Nolan...has an easygoing confidence as another character we get to know at different stages of life...Martin and Brickell's music is rootsy and most often joyful...Of Martin's book, I felt that too often I was being told what to feel, without being given opportunity to feel it. Connective tissue between the storylines, probably intended to sneak up on us at the end, seemed obvious halfway through the first act...It's not a perfect musical; this "Star" doesn't always guide the way, but at times it beams brightly enough.
Elysa Gardner, USA Today: ...Bright Star aspires to the kind of emotional sweep and folksy wit we associate with Golden Age musicals, from Rodgers and Hammerstein classics to Meredith Willson's The Music Man. That's a tall order in 2016, with irony and its bratty child, snark, having emerged as prevalent comic tools. But Martin, a master ironist, captures some of that old-school spirit with a book that's as forthright as it is smart, funny and charming...Director Walter Bobbie culls spirited, endearing performances from the actors cast in these roles. Carmen Cusack's Alice evolves convincingly from a mischievous girl to an accomplished but lonely and disappointed woman, while A.J. Shively makes Billy at once wholesome and credibly ambitious.
Linda Winer, Newsday: It doesn't shy away from the cornball or the unapologetically sentimental. And, yes, the plot is implausibly romantic and hinged on coincidence. Along with all that, however, "Bright Star" is also downright wonderful -- a multichambered sweetheart of an original that Steve Martin and Edie Brickell created for Broadway from little more than a 1902 news item about a lost baby and an unbridled love of American roots music...At first, all the "sun's gonna shine" and "a man's gotta do" songs seem awfully simple and self-explanatory...But as the relationships deepen and darken, the show -- directed with a lack of cynicism and lots of rolling wood furniture by Walter Bobbie ("Chicago") -- grows with the complexity of a juicy short story. The large cast is uniformly appealing, with choreography that brings a haunting moodiness to the square dances and jitterbugs. Then there's the score, which builds with rhythmic surprises, melodic complexity and the deep satisfaction of humming and plucking strings.
Joe Dziemianowicz, New York Daily News: Steve Martin is famous for wild-and-crazy antics. But in his debut as a Broadway author and composer, he drops the arrow-through-the-head zaniness. He and co-writer Edie Brickell aim straight for the heart in a new musical about love, loss, family and forgiveness. Called "Bright Star," the show isn't a bullseye. But it's sweet and tender and boasts a fine cast...Martin and Brickell's bluegrassy score is mellow and pretty. But it's also repetitive -- melodically and lyrically...Director Walter Bobbie ("Chicago") and choreographer Josh Rhodes keep the show chugging along...Cusack, a Broadway rookie, consistently shines -- even when "Bright Star" doesn't.
Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post: Steve Martin and Edie Brickell's "Bright Star" is a Broadway oddity -- and not just because it has a bluegrass score. No, the weird thing about "Bright Star" is the way it juxtaposes an over-the-top plot with a low-key production and mild-tempered music...The show ambles along, alternating between lively hootenannies and lovely ditties -- the title song is especially wonderful, performed by Shively and the ensemble with hopeful joy...The show's droll, earnest tone does have its appeal...As a gentle fable, "Bright Star" has a quirky charm, but its stubborn refusal to face up to its dark side diminishes it.
Matt Windman, AM New York: Compared to other new Broadway musicals, "Bright Star" is a total anomaly. It's wholly original and unashamedly sentimental and romantic, with a country-folk score and no well-known actors in the cast...The storytelling can be jumbled, improbable and sappy, and the characters are undeveloped. Nevertheless, it is a heartwarming and crowd-pleasing musical, sporting many pleasant country songs (backed by piano, guitar and banjo), a sunny disposition and a Southern Gothic flavor...Walter Bobbie's attractive production is marked by vibrant performances, brisk movement...and a backwoods visual design.
Jesse Green, Vulture: ...Bright Star now opens with an establishing song called "If You Knew My Story." It's super-catchy, and Carmen Cusack, whose role in the proceedings we do not yet comprehend, sings the hell out of it. But unfortunately it does its "show the audience what to expect" job too well. With banal, self-cancelling, upbeat lyrics...it mostly shows us that we are going to have, in Bright Star, a banal, self-cancelling, upbeat musical, the kind that wants to demonstrate a lot of heart without actually having one. Which is not to say it has no smarts and no value. There's a lot to like in Bright Star and a lot to admire in the way it was made...How the stories intersect with the songs is the larger problem here. The mostly bluegrass score, with country, gospel, and a little swing thrown in, sounds great...but almost always does exactly the opposite of what a story-based musical requires.
Jeremy Gerard, Deadline: Fans of Martin's wide-ranging gifts as comedian, author, movie star, art collector, playwright (count me in) have seen his avocation as expert picker blossom with the singer-songwriter Brickell. Their work is suffused with an irresistible chemistry of longing and optimism and even a kind of countrified mysticism that divines hope in sorrowful corners of the soul. So my advice is to spend an evening with Love Has Come For You and the new album, So Familiar, and skip Bright Star, the unfortunate musical they have brought to the Cort Theatre...If you can recall the take-no-prisoners lunacy of Martin's play Picasso at the Lapin Agile, you may be doubly disappointed by this earnest but soggy mess.
Robert Hofler, TheWrap: The "Bright Star" bluegrass score features more twangs per dipthong than a whole evening of "Tobacco Road"...Walter Bobbie directs and Josh Rhodes choreographs "Bright Star" in a way that brings to mind Agnes de Mille as rendered by Grant Wood. Time will tell if this musical makes the walls of Joe Allen restaurant's gallery of flops. On the walls of my mind, "Bright Star" has already taken its place between last season's "Doctor Zhivago" and 1979's "Got Tu Go Disco."
Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune: If you had any doubt of the formidable polyglot of talent that makes up one Steve Martin, or you were under the misapprehension that his banjo was primarily the accessory of a stand-up or Hollywood comic, the very conception of "Bright Star" should be enough to lay that to rest. In collaboration with the folk-rock musician Edie Brickell, Martin forged score, book and story for this wholly original musical -- a piece that, despite its tonal unevenness and frequent, needless diversions from truth, still feels like a significant, distinctive and artful entry into the Broadway repertory. And it comes replete with a beautiful leading performance from Carmen Cusack, an actress who has worked often in musicals in Chicago but here makes a gorgeously authentic Broadway debut that looks likely to change her life.
Peter Marks, Washington Post: Director Walter Bobbie's production in the Cort Theatre, where the musical had its official opening Thursday night, retains the intelligently spare look of the incarnation in the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater. (It's also tauter - about 10 minutes shorter than it was in Washington.) Evoking a bucolic North Carolina of the 1920s and '40s, set designer Eugene Lee deploys a skeletal cabin on wheels as the visual centerpiece, in which the band, expertly conducted by Rob Berman, sits and strums Martin and Brickell's amiable tunes, albeit with some oddly-set lyrics. It's also worth noting that one of the biggest hands of the evening comes for the orchestra's playing of the entr'acte, the purely instrumental interlude that greets us after intermission.
Alexis Soloski, Guardian: Arriving on Broadway after several out-of-town tryouts, Bright Star is still suffering some issues of scale. The story it tells is a small and tender one and the staging and the music, playful and lovely, sometimes struggle to fill the house. The most emblematic aspect: a toy train that trundles on a trestle above the stage to suggest the journeys that characters take, an effect both charming and chintzy.
Jessica Derschowitz, Entertainment Weekly: It's Martin and Brickell's music that's the brightest star in Bright Star. The bluegrass sounds compliment the show's setting and era, Americana music with layered harmonies and beautiful use of banjo and fiddle. Not every song is a winner, but there are stirring ballads and toe-tapping numbers throughout that audience members will enjoy.
Photo Credit: Nick Stokes