BWW Review: BRIGHT STAR shines at The Firehouse Theatre
A little over a year ago, I stepped into The Firehouse Theatre in Farmer's Branch for the first time to see a stellar production of "Little Women." The theater felt comfortable and cozy then, and it feels that way now. A friendly volunteer greets you at the door, the lobby smells of fresh popped popcorn, and you can still pick up a blanket on your way into the theater to maximize your coziness. I was back to see another beautiful musical with a strong female lead, but this time the story was relatively new and the music was played live. "Bright Star," by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell is billed as "an uplifting musical journey." The story sprawls over decades, steeped in the history and culture of the American south, accompanied by the most beautiful, toe-tapping, heart-breaking folk music you've ever heard. A story rooted in family, tradition, and home deserves a venue as homey as The Firehouse Theatre.
Young Billy Cane, just back home from fighting in World War II, has always wanted to become an author and join the ranks of the great Southern writers. Tasked with finding a great story to tell, he is drawn back to his hometown, his family and neighbors. Alice Murphy, the story's protagonist and Billy's editor and writing mentor, opens the show preparing to share a story of her own. "If you knew my story," she sings, "you'd have a good story to tell." As the plot lazily unfurls (following the tradition of the great southern writers in its own way, sprawling out like a long hot afternoon on the porch), the audience slowly realizes that Alice's story and Billy's have intertwined in an unexpected way.
Certain design elements enhance the storytelling theme. The set, designed by Brandon Tijerina, looks like some kind of old storeroom, with wooden shelves of random antiques, from toys to tools, lining the walls. It is stripped down, spacious, and unassuming. All the set pieces and props needed to tell the story are already there, tucked away into various corners. Ensemble members carry in and build makeshift furniture right before your eyes. A door propped up on two sawhorses becomes a dining room table. Exposed hooks hold instruments on the walls, waiting to be whisked off and played by various ensemble members. Members of the ensemble also utilize their own bodies to create affects, like a row of seated individuals bouncing in unison to convey a rickety train ride. I particularly loved the moment during the song "Asheville" when members of the ensemble seem to rewind time, moving a frozen Billy back into his coat and into his chair. Kelly McCain has done a spectacular job using her choreography to create the environment and ambience.
There's no attempt to hide that these people are telling a story, putting on a show for you, but rather that fact is amplified. In a beautiful dance, ensemble member Thi Le wraps up a piece of cloth and imbues it with significance, and just like that, the bundle becomes Alice's baby. The show has a soft open, so the ensemble mills about the stage before the show begins tuning instruments, reviewing dance steps, and chatting amongst themselves. It's as if director Tyler Jeffrey Adams wanted you to think "Here's a troupe of actors, preparing to spin me a yarn." The costumes, designed by Victor Newman Brockwell, underscore the effect. Some are more period appropriate than others, but most are modern clothes with a nod to vintage fashion rather than true vintage pieces.
The music sounds truly impeccable. I am a southern girl and a fan of folk music anyway, but this surpassed all my expectations. Music director Mark Mullino inarguably leads his team of musicians to near perfection. (Special props to pianist Chris Crotwell, whose piano, atop a wheeled platform, was constantly shifting positions on the stage.) The blending of the ensemble voices during the title song, "Bright Star," made my heart soar.
Lucy Shea's performance as Alice Murphy was unpretentious, intuitive, and emotional. Shea had a tall order playing both reckless teenage Alice in flashbacks to the 1920s and the more practical and reserved Alice of the 1940s. Every time jump and flashback was perfectly clear thanks to Shea's complete transformation, not only in appearance, but in demeanor and energy. Shea has the enviable ability to be captivating even in the simplest of gestures or actions. Alex Branton, who plays Alice's love interest Jimmy Ray Dobbs, seems incredibly attentive to his partner, fully absorbed in Shea's spell. In the wrong hands, Jimmy Ray could come off as a bit of a smarmy braggart, but Branton's Jimmy Ray is a hopelessly devoted romantic who tries to hide the depth of his feeling behind a flimsy layer of wit and charm. Every action is rooted in Alice's need. Shea's and Branton's chemistry will make you melt. Jason Craig West plays a very believably naïve and optimistic Billy. He is charming in a different way than Jimmy Ray, a kind of adorably inept bumbling that immediately endears him to you. Sonny Franks plays a similarly endearing Daddy Cane, and though he is perhaps a little bumbling like his son, he is also wise and serene and soft-spoken. Sara Shelby-Martin and Martin Guerra-West play Alice's parents, who, like any parents of a rebellious teenager might be, are concerned about their daughter's wellbeing. Both Shelby-Martin's and Guerra-West's performances are nuanced and complex as the Murphy family tries to reconcile desire for tenderness with a need for strict principles.
The Firehouse Theatre feels like the perfect home for such a beautiful story as "Bright Star." Turns out it is truly "an uplifting musical journey" after all. "Bright Star" runs through June 9th at The Firehouse Theatre in Farmer's Branch. For more information, call their box office at 972-620-3747.
Photo courtesy of Pendleton Photography