BWW Review: Taproot Presents BRIGHT STAR, The Musical that Would Have Been Better as a Play
Edie Brickell and Steve Martin's "Bight Star", currently playing at Taproot Theatre, has a lovely and heartbreaking story, but is a musical that suffers from two things. First, it can never quite come to terms with which era it's in, and second (and most importantly) it's a musical that doesn't have very good songs.
But, as I said, the story is lovely as we meet Billy Cane (Mike Spee), a young man home from the war in 1945. He's a kind young man with a thirst for telling stories and is determined to get his stories published someday. So, he leaves his small town as well as Margot (Miranda Antoinette Troutt), the girl who adores him, behind to travel to the big city and make it happen. Once there he seeks out Alice Murphy (Brenna Wagner), an influential literary editor who can make his dreams a reality. But Alice has her own story from the past involving her one true love Jimmy Ray (Brian Pucheu) and a baby that was taken from her, that keeps her from opening up and making the most of her life.
A lovely story but not one that would take long to tell even with the constant back in forth in time device the show employs, hence the choice (I'm sure) to make it a musical. The problem is, musicals are longer, yes, but only work when your songs have something to say. When your characters have so much inside them, that it must come out in song. That's not the case here. Brickell and Martin have chosen the genre of bluegrass folk music to weave their tale which would sound like a perfect choice. It fits the genre and the area and folk music, at least the good ones, are all about storytelling. However, their songs may sound right, but they don't convey any story. In fact, for the most part, they only serve to pause the action to accentuate a moment or circumstance, not any emotion, but simply a moment. And to make it worse the songs are so repetitive, often using a single line over and over, that not only do they not say anything, but they sound more like pop lyrics than anything. Even the big climax at the end of Act One, which is surrounded by emotion, fails to convey the why or what of the emotion, but simply that the instance causing the emotion exists.
Furthermore, the show has some very funny moments, obviously supplied by Martin, but it makes the characters step out of the time they're in for a bit and gives them moments of over the top cleverness. One character of Daryl, hilariously played by Brian Lange, is supposed to be a failed writer as his stories lack humor, yet he continually manages some of the funniest lines in the piece.
The cast does what they can with the show but it's hard for them to convey the heart of a show and its emotional core, when the songs give them nothing to work with. Wagner belts and blows away with her rousing songs, but her songs don't say much. Plus, I didn't see the closed off, hard as nails editor that I was supposed to see, making her arc not as strong. Spee too has an incredible voice but I never got to know his character much as there wasn't much there. Pucheu probably conveys the most in terms of his emotions and character but was ill the night I saw so his vocals were shaky. And Troutt brings in one of the more evocative songs but then disappears too quickly.
Director Karen Lund is saddled with trying to craft a story with no sense of feeling and instead mostly paints pictures on stage. However, those pictures don't lend themselves to telling the story either that the songs don't. Case in point, I saw this on Broadway during it's short run and remember a wonderfully choregraphed number surrounding Margot's song where her inner monologue manages a dream world where Billy returns and she's able to sing her feelings to him. At least that's how it was staged there. Here, Billy just leaves, and Margot is left singing her inner monologue about Billy to two frozen customers in her bookstore.
I have no idea what prompted Taproot to resurrect this failed attempt except maybe having the names Edie Brickell and Steve Martin on the poster, probably the same reason it went as far as it did on Broadway. But I don't think anyone could have salvaged this story without a major rewrite. And so, with my three-letter rating system, I give Taproot Theatre's production of "Bright Star" a still uninspired MEH. I had hoped it might have grown since I saw it in previews on Broadway, but it appears it didn't and still only has a nice story and good singers going for it.
"Bright Star" performs at Taproot Theatre through August 17th. For tickets or information contact the Taproot box office at 206-781-9707 or visit them online at www.taproottheatre.org.