BWW Review: BRIGHT STAR Burns Out Too Soon
BRIGHT STAR follows two pairs of star-crossed lovers, two decades apart, all against the backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. And now through March 25, Theatre Under The Stars presents the Tony Award-nominated musical at the Hobby Center.
It's 1923 and Alice Murphy (Audrey Cardwell) and Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Patrick Cummings) are positively smitten. Alice is sassy, self-assured and far too smart for her puritanical father's comfort (John Leslie Wolfe). Jimmy Ray is deeply curious about the world, and torn between the woman he loves and his arrogant, classist father's (David Atkinson) expectations that he assume the family business and marry a woman with a dowry. Then Alice becomes pregnant, and is sent to a cabin in the woods to avoid bringing shame to either family (it was that or a home for wayward girls). When she gives birth to a boy, the lovers' fathers - decision-makers under the law at the time - force the couple to give up their child for adoption. The romance immediately falls apart, as Alice and Jimmy Ray grapple with family secrets and great loss.
Flash-forward to 1945, when soldier Billy Cane (Henry Gottfried) returns home after World War II. Billy is a voracious reader and talented writer, who has long relied on the editing talents of local book-store proprietor (and clear love match) Margo Crawford (Liana Hunt). Adrift, and in search of his own identity, the veteran becomes consumed with his desire to be published by literary powerhouse, the Asheville Southern Journal. Billy packs a bag and heads south to fulfill his dream, where he meets noted literary editor to the stars (including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway) Alice Murphy.
BRIGHT STAR is propelled by boldface names and a ton of talent. With music, book and story by Steve Martin, music, lyrics and story by Edie Brickell, and direction by Walter Bobbie, the production has every reason to succeed. Individually, the parts of the show are strong and, at times, even great. But when pieced together and performed as a musical, BRIGHT STAR burns out moments after the curtain rises.
BRIGHT STAR was inspired by Martin and Brickell's own work, using some previously released songs as important thematic markers throughout the production. Fans of the musical duo will recognize and delight in the context the show gives to "Sun Is Gonna Shine," "Asheville," and "Always Will." Though heavily influenced by bluegrass, this is not a "bluegrass musical." Written to appeal to a broader audience, the score is upbeat, folksy, clap-along country in the tradition of southern Americana.
It's evident that Martin and Brickell are huge musical theater fans. It's hard to miss the strains of "Mama Who Bore Me" from Duncan Sheik's SPRING AWAKENING in BRIGHT STAR's "Please Don't Take Him," or the unmistakable influence of Rodgers and Hammerstein's classics OKLAHOMA and CAROUSEL on the story and sound.
BRIGHT STAR is packed with great music and performed by a wildly talented and deeply committed cast. The band is made up of blockbuster musicians, who deftly transition between the violin, viola, fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar and accordion, to just name a few. Almost as if another character in the show, I loved the way the band (sans percussion) was maneuvered around the stage, seated inside the open frame of a house.
Josh Rhodes' choreography, while occasionally distracting, is stunning overall; the depth of his talent can best be seen and admired during "Asheville."
BRIGHT STAR was clearly designed in the way of an old-fashioned classic, intended to delight audiences of all ages for years to come. It has all of the parts down pat, along with the desire to be great. So why doesn't it work?
The problem is this: BRIGHT STAR wants to be more than it is. It aspires too greatly, trying too hard to deliver mass appeal and emotional moments. I don't have a problem with the show's optimism and sentimentality; it's just that you can feel that it was written to come across that way. The production lacks the sincerity and depth of the true musical theater classics on which it was modeled.
The characters are cute, but deeply underdeveloped. They have plenty of heart, but no soul, rendering it nearly impossible to connect with the one-note players. As an audience member, I enjoyed watching them sing and dance, and had great admiration for the talent on stage and behind the production, but I just couldn't cross the line to care.
Just like the story, BRIGHT STAR's lyrics are simple, straightforward and often repetitive; recurring themes and reprises are staples of musical theater. However, throughout the show, and particularly during highly emotive scenes, the characters don't tell us how they actually feel; instead, they sing directions and plans.
Martin and Brickell are uber-talented songwriters and lyricists, known for sincerity and passion. BRIGHT STAR is the first work I've seen from them where the product feels manufactured and detached from the artists. Certainly, that could be the result of an overwrought and overproduced musical. Maybe it's because it didn't start with a story, instead building a musical around individual songs. Or perhaps, they were too focused on creating something for other people and not for themselves.
In 2016, BRIGHT STAR was nominated for five Tony awards, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre. That was the year that Lin-Manuel Miranda's modern musical masterpiece HAMILTON, known for its diverse casting choices, swept the awards.
HAMILTON director Tommy Kail commented on his show's diverse casting to USA Today, saying: "It's the story about America then, told by America now." In stark comparison, BRIGHT STAR is a story about America then, told by America THEN. The lack of people of color featured in the production emphasizes BRIGHT STAR's yearning to echo musicals of the past, but in doing so, shuts out modern audiences.
I am not suggesting that every piece of art should contain social commentary and reflect contemporary society. However, BRIGHT STAR doesn't just lack multicultural representation; it's missing the cohesiveness and authenticity a great musical needs to succeed, and most of all, a story that makes audiences care.
Had BRIGHT STAR been presented as "An Evening of Music by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell," with the same talented players just sitting on chairs on a stage performing this beautiful music, or even just singing "la la la," it would have been a masterpiece.
It's incredibly hard to write a musical, and nearly impossible to find staging and backing; I can't help but wonder if the show would have gotten off the ground without Martin's iconic name on the marquee.
BRIGHT STAR sits on the cusp of greatness. I can't wait for this team's next outing, and in the meantime, take solace knowing that even superhuman talents like Martin and Brickell are capable of missteps every once in a while.
Theatre Under The Stars presents BRIGHT STAR, running now through March 25 at The Hobby Center, 800 Bagby Street. Tickets start at $30. For additional information and to purchase tickets, visit tuts.com or call the box office at 713-558-8887.
Photo credit: Craig Schwartz