BWW Review: BRIGHT STAR shines at Mill Town Players
When I learned that Steve Martin and Edie Brickell had written a musical, I knew I had to see it. In middle school I proclaimed myself a wild and crazy guy and printed "Well Excuuuuuse me!" on a T-shirt - for which I was often ridiculed. In college, I regularly attended concerts in tiny Dallas nightclubs, dancing in front of my favorite band, New Bohemians, and their lead singer, Edie Brickell. When I ran into her at a record store she recognized me as the "guy with the hat." In 2013, when Martin and Brickell toured together with the Steep Canyon Rangers, I was there at the Peace Center to bask in their light.
And, of course, I love musicals.
So making a pilgrimage to Broadway to see their collaboration, BRIGHT STAR, seemed essential. The show opened in early 2016 and that March I bought tickets and took my very first trip to New York City. I felt electric anticipation as I took in the sights of the city and geared up to see my first Broadway show. Well, first two shows. Since I was going to be there anyway, I figured I should catch another show, too. So I bought tickets to see another new musical the night before I was scheduled to see BRIGHT STAR. This other musical had a lot of buzz and seemed like it would be well worth seeing, so I watched HAMILTON with Lin-Manuel Miranda and the entire original cast. Walking out of the Richard Rodgers Theatre, my brother said, "Let's blow off BRIGHT STAR and just figure out a way to see HAMILTON again." It took me a long time to convince myself to stick with the original plan. So the next day, still buzzing from HAMILTON, we headed toward our second show and in the course of that day I lost my glasses and spent two hours backtracking my every step trying to find them but never did find them and when I sat down to watch BRIGHT STAR everything was just a little out of focus and a lot not-HAMILTON. The experience was pleasant, but underwhelming.
Flash forward three and a half years when the blessed miracle of the Mill Town Players opened my eyes. Friends, BRIGHT STAR has been redeemed.
Set in North Carolina, the musical traverses two time periods - the early 1920s and the mid 1940s - to tell the story of Alice Murphy (Hannah Thompson). In the latter time period, Alice is a magazine editor with a reputation for bringing a "dark layer of gloom" to the office. She intimidates her underlings almost as much as she intimidates an aspiring young writer, Billy (Seth Crawford). But "way back in the day," Alice was young and playful and deeply in love with a man named Jimmy Ray (John Mark Elliott). Families clash and dreams are dashed, but there's always a glimmer of hope that some day the sun will shine again.
Filled with heart and set to a bluegrass beat, BRIGHT STAR touches on themes of love and redemption as well as the formative power - both good and bad - of community. It's also not afraid to navigate a full range of emotions, reeling us into Alice's heaven as well as her hell. By the end, I shed actual tears of joy.
Scenic designer Will Ragland and lighting designer Tony Penna set the scene with an astonishing transformation of the Mill Town stage. The wooden structure and illusion of rolling hills in the distance give the space a welcoming warmth and intimacy . The stage makes beautiful use of forced perspective to keep the action focused and also create some wonderful illusions - especially a scene on a train. Locations are changed and established with just a few simple props and chairs. And best of all, the pitch-perfect band - under music director Joshua Morton - remains on stage the entire time.
But that's all just backdrop for director Mary Nickles to guide her terrific cast, who bring the show to vivid life. Hannah Thompson leads the proceedings as Alice, a role that requires a strong voice and personality to match. Thompson has both and easily navigates the two time periods, younger and older, fire and ice. Honestly, I found it much easier to follow the flow of the show this time, as opposed to the Broadway version, precisely because I could follow Thompson's journey. She also has great chemistry with John Mark Elliott, who brings a natural charm to the role of Jimmy Ray. Together, they make it easy to root for this couple - especially when they get trapped against the iron will of Jimmy Ray's father, the Mayor. Will Ragland commands the stage as the Mayor, giving the character a smooth, charismatic appeal that tricks us into giving him the benefit of the doubt. He is at first humorous and later chilling as he sings "A Man's Gotta Do What a Man's Gotta Do."
I also loved the engaging Seth Crawford as Billy, the bright eyed innocent who tries to navigate his small town roots with his big city dreams. Other standouts include Rod McClendon as Daddy Cane, and Kelsey Crews as Margo. Her rendition of "Asheville" is utterly gorgeous. But the biggest surprise for me was that this time I really liked two supporting characters, Daryl and Lucy. On Broadway, I found the characters annoying and almost superfluous. But here, as brought to life by Aaron Pennington and Hannah Morton, they became favorites. Their song & dance number with Billy, "Another Round," seemed endless and grating when I saw it before, but this time it sparkled, highlighted by Crawford's terrific dancing and his easy rapport with Morton.
Director Nickles keeps everything rolling at a great pace and masterfully guides the ensemble throughout, even using actors as set pieces on occasion - the human clothesline was especially clever. Musically, everything seemed well-balanced, which is particularly tricky with an onstage band, so credit to music director Morton - and audio engineer Bo Whigham - for that.
"If you knew my story," Alice sings at the beginning of BRIGHT STAR, "you'd have a good story to tell." I'm so grateful that Mill Town Players gave this story a new life for me. Don't miss it.
Photo credit: Escobar Photography