BWW Review: Hatty Ryan King's Star Shines Brightly in Lipscomb's BRIGHT STAR
There is something about Hatty Ryan King - the young woman playing Alice Murphy in Lipscomb University Theatre's superb production of Bright Star (the recent Broadway musical by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell) now onstage at Collins Alumni Auditorium through November 10 - that sets her apart from her peers, that makes her seem destined for greatness and which ensures that every role she takes on is elevated by her unerring instincts, her palpable presence and her inestimable talent.
Hatty Ryan King is a star.
To her tremendous credit, director Beki Baker (who heads the theater department at the Nashville university), surrounds King with a stellar cast of young performers - and one veteran of the stage whose roots trace back to the same bucolic campus in Green Hills - to bring the story of Bright Star to life with startling authenticity and dazzling theatricality. It's clearly one of the year's best musicals and one which audiences will remember long after the final curtain falls.
Martin and Brickell's musical, which we are reminded is based upon true events, relates a tale that seems melodramatic at first blush, but when considered long after the actors have gone home and the costumes have been put away, rings with a genuineness that ensures its total believability. It's a Southern tale, to be certain, but its themes are universal and its impact reverberates beyond the reach of the voices of Baker's extraordinarily capable cast.
Bright Star is as stunning a piece of musical theater you may ever hope to experience. The music instantly transports you to another time and place in a way that seems effortless yet is indicative of the tremendous talents of the assemblage of people who have crafted a work of art that packs an emotional wallop with its timeless tale of heartbreak and redemption that guarantees a powerful and deeply felt response.
The power of its startling storytelling comes over you almost without warning. Thankfully, that level of instant engagement ensures you will be riveted to the tale as it unfolds onstage before you from the very earliest moments ("If You Knew My Story," a spellbinding opening number that perfectly sets the tone for Bright Star) to the show's finale that wobbles - almost imperceptibly if one isn't an aficionado of classic musical comedy tropes - toward a jarring musical theater climax that the writers manage to sidestep with more than a little grace, literary dexterity and self-awareness.
The musical score is evocative of the time period in which the play is set, with the plaintive strains of bluegrass infusing a very real sense of place and purpose for the show. Yet there is a very contemporary feel to the pace and timing of Bright Star that makes it accessible for today's audiences.
Set in the hills of North Carolina for a story that spans the decades from 1923 to post-World War II 1946, Bright Star focuses on the life of Alice Murphy, whom first we meet in "If You Knew My Story," as the editor of a successful literary magazine based in Asheville (where, we're told, she publishes Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor - two of my favorite writers - on the regular) before we are reintroduced to her as a precociously intelligent and irascible teenager destined for greatness (not unlike the aforementioned Miss King). Perhaps that is why the role and the actor are so well-suited to each other: Alice Murphy and Hatty Ryan King are two sides of the very same coin.
Playing Alice is a challenge for any actress, regardless of her age and experience - she is in her late 30s one moment, 16 or 17 at the next - and she must, by turns, be playful and silly, serious and taciturn and with every known emotional attribute in between thrown in for good measure. Clearly, the role of Alice Murphy is a staggering assignment, but no one of her generation seems better suited to the job than King, who displays a maturity that is almost confounding, mirroring it with an innate girlish charm that allows her to make the transition from chlid to adult with grace, power and likability. She moves so effortlessly from one time period to the next that it leaves you breathless, utilizing her voice and movements, the slightest turn of phrase or almost imperceptible turn of her head, to indicate the time and place of a particular moment in the thoroughly involving context of the musical.
Playing opposite King, as her romantic interest Jimmy Ray Dobbs, Easton Curtis delivers an equally powerful and moving portrayal that seems unexpected, except when you consider the promise he has shown throughout his youth. Like Miss King, Mr. Curtis is the real deal; together, they will melt your heart and, in recollection, their pairing will continue to impress. Curtis so very effectively bridges the gap between his teenage character and his older, more experienced and timeworn iteration that his performance is staggering.
Their performance of "I Had A Vision" perfectly blends the talents and voices of King and Curtis and its emotional impact will be felt throughout the musical. Truth be told, when I hear the music I have a visceral reaction, the lyrics never failing to make me cry: "If I could lift this veil of darkness, if I could find my way back to you..." (yes, the tears are falling as I write)...
Jonathan Killebrew is terrific as Billy Cane, a young GI returning from war to encounter loss at home which spurs him on to pursue a career as a writer - a pivotal moment that brings him to the offices of Alice's literary journal. Katie Chance is delightfully coquettish and down-to-earth as Margo, the girl back home who nurses a lifelong crush on Billy.
The gorgeous and period-perfect Elizabeth Golden very nearly steals the show as the flirtatious and slightly scandalous Lucy Grant, who works the front desk at the journal along with the acerbic Darryl Ames, played skillfully by Logan Dozier. Together, with Killebrew, they deliver one of the score's most entertaining number "Another Round."
As Alice's father, Connor Tarpley does a fine job of creating a believable characterization of a man much older than himself, but it's Annika Burley's starmaking turn as Alice's mother that is truly revelatory: You will have to keep reminding yourself that the talented young woman is indeed the same age (or thereabouts) as the actress playing her daughter.
Chip Arnold, an alumnus of the Lipscomb theater program once headed by his legendary father Henry O. Arnold (the entire Arnold family's bloodline seems to course throughout the successful theater program at the university), is well-cast as the dastardly Josiah Dobbs, as evil a villain to ever come down the pike. It's a definite credit to Arnold that he manages to infuse some humanity in the character to keep the audience from hurling tomatoes and invective toward the stage.
Baker's direction is thoughtful and beautifully paced - clearly, she understands the power of the story being told - and she trusts her young actors to put their training to use in the creation of an amazing work of art. Music director David Weinstein's onstage band perform the score with professionalism leavened with generous helpings of theatrical flair and down-home spirit that is essential to bringing a score brimming with Americana and the sense of place that is evident in Bright Star. Choreographer Kari Smith supplies her dancers with energetic movement that helps to convey the heartfelt emotions expressed throughout.
Visually, we're uncertain if we have ever seen a more gorgeous productions at Lipscomb: Andy Bleiler's set, a collection of shadow boxes filled to the brim with amazingly timeless artifacts that instantly transport audiences to the era of the play, is stunning. Stephen Moss' evocative, atmospheric lighting frames the action with beautiful illumination, helping to create the glow of nostalgia onstage. Likewise, June Kingsbury's costumes are ideal recreations of fashion of the time period, lending a sense of credibility to the proceedings. Finally, Corey Callis' sound design artfully allows every nuance to be heard, every note sung to be appreciated.
Bright Star. Music, book and story by Steve Martin. Music, lyrics and story by Edie Brickell. Directed by Beki Baker. Musical direction by David Weinstein. Choreographed by Kari Smith. Stage managed by Anna Biggerstaff. Presented by the Lipscomb University Theatre at Collins Alumni Auditorium, Nashville. Through November 10. For details, go to www.theatre.lipscomb.edu. Running time: Two hours, 30 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).
Production photos by Sarah Johnson