BWW Exclusive: BRIGHT STAR at Pioneer Theatre Company is a Special Experience

BWW Exclusive: BRIGHT STAR at Pioneer Theatre Company is a Special Experience

BRIGHT STAR at Pioneer Theatre Company is utterly ravishing. The masterful performances and staging will take your breath away as they unforgettably illuminate the moving story and songs.

Essentially the original Broadway production transferred to the PTC stage, this is not a locally produced regional production, nor is it a typical national tour per se in its current state. In late 2017, the Broadway production was remounted in Los Angeles under the direction of the original production team, led by director Walter Bobbie (CHICAGO), and featuring some of the original cast members. It then traveled to San Francisco before it was brought to Salt Lake City by visionary PTC artistic director Karen Azenberg. This is the last city where it will be presented in this form, starring Carmen Cusack, who was Tony-nominated for her role. After regrouping, it will move forward as a more traditional national tour starting in March.

Suffice it to say, the experience of seeing BRIGHT STAR at Pioneer Theatre Company is something very special. Arguably, there has not been a Utah theatrical event this singular since Audra McDonald reprised her Tony-nominated role in 110 IN THE SHADE at Hale Center Theater Orem in 2010.

In addition to reviewing, BroadwayWorld was provided the opportunity to speak with cast and band members about the production.

"Your city is so gorgeous, and I speak for the whole cast when I say we're really happy and excited to be here," Cusack said.

BRIGHT STAR (music, book, and story by Steve Martin; music, lyrics, and story by Edie Brickell) was nominated for five Tony Awards in 2016. Inspired by a true event, it tells the dual story of a young World War II veteran named Billy Cane, who attempts to convince editor Alice Murphy to publish his stories, and Alice's experiences as a young woman in love in the 1920s. The flavorful, memorable score is a unique brand of Americana that incorporates elements of folk, bluegrass, and Broadway to spin the uplifting tale.

It is no wonder that Carmen Cusack was one of the frontrunners for the Best Actress in a Musical Tony race for her portrayal of Alice Murphy. She is luminous as she transforms effortlessly back and forth from jaded editor in her late 30s to wide-eyed teenage girl. The changes that each iteration of the character goes through as Alice must deal with the revelations and challenges life brings her mean that neither is static but always shifting. And even more astonishing is that despite all this, it always feels not like two characters but one that the audience is on a 22-year journey with. Add Cusack's effortless, mellifluous vocals, and her performance is impossible to resist.

Cusack revels in the opportunity to revisit her teenage years, and she enjoys the challenge of moving back and forth in time. "This probably is the easiest part of it and is so much fun," she said. "I don't think I've grown up easily. Sixteen--that's my sweet spot."

While participating in the initial workshop of the show, Cusack felt compelled to continue with it. "I thought, I want to go on this journey because something is going to come of this--I just felt it in my bones," she said. "I was immediately drawn to it because of the heart of the piece. I just couldn't let the role go." Now, nearly five years later, she is playing it for the final time in Salt Lake City.

Cusack's stirring presence inspires the rest of the cast to rise to her level. They give beautiful, Broadway-caliber performances across the board.

A.J. Shively, who originated the role of Billy Cane, and Maddie Shea Baldwin, who pines for him as Margo Crawford, are likeable and sweet but also carry with them a depth of emotion. Whether together or apart, they are captivating.

Patrick Cummings as Jimmy Ray Dobbs has a muscular voice and poignant delivery, and he especially shines in the character's carefree moments.

A trio of seasoned stage and screen veterans play the main characters' fathers with both strength and nuance. They include Stephen Lee Anderson as Daddy Murphy (who originated the role), David Atkinson as Daddy Cane, and Jeff Austin as Mayor Josiah Dobbs.

Jeff Blumenkrantz as Daryl Ames (original Broadway cast) and Kaitlyn Davidson as Lucy Grant provide delightful comic relief with perfectly calibrated energy and well-timed repartee.

Davidson saw the original production on Broadway before she was cast. "I wept--it was really beautiful," she said. "It's sweeping and heartwarming and full of joy and innocence. I wanted to serve the story in the best way possible."

"It's fun for me to be in a show that delivers such joy," Blumenkrantz added.

The ever-present ensemble never distracts from the moments at hand, but their participation on the periphery of the scenes deepens the impact of both the music and the visuals.

The minimalist staging is entrancing, as Bobbie's superb direction melds into the well-integrated choreography by Josh Rhodes (CINDERELLA) and the ever-moving scenic design by Eugene Lee (RAGTIME) to evince an unexpected, flowing theatricality. The musical numbers "Bright Star" and "Asheville" are highlights in this regard.

The costume design by Jane Greenwood (THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL) and hair/wig design by Tom Watson (WICKED) are lovely in their details as they represent not just one but two specific eras in repertory throughout the show, as well as incorporating the aging of the characters.

The lighting design by Japhy Weideman (DEAR EVAN HANSEN) is extraordinary in its ability to fix the audience's focus on the important elements of the scene while simultaneously evoking the simple natural beauty of the setting and the emotional resonance of the material.

A distinctive element of BRIGHT STAR is the fabulous on-stage band led by P. Jason Yarcho, which augments the action rather than distracting from it.

"I think having the band onstage with the cast really brings the music to the forefront," said violinist Martha McDonnell, who has been with the show since before Broadway.

"I love this show, I love the people, I love the reactions from city to city," said mandolin player Wayne Fugate, who made his Broadway debut with BRIGHT STAR. "Everything about it is way beyond wonderful. It is the kind of show that elicits an amazing response of audience loyalty with its universal themes of love, and forgiveness, and redemption."

The audience reception in Utah thus far has proven no different. Do not hesitate to buy tickets now to see BRIGHT STAR at Pioneer Theatre Company. You owe it to yourself to experience this life-changing production firsthand in all its splendor.

"Come with an open heart," Cusack said, "and you'll be well rewarded."

BRIGHT STAR plays through January 27, 2018. For tickets, call the box office at 801-581-6961 or visit www.pioneertheatre.org.

Photo Credit: Carmen Cusack. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

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