We welcome a musical like “Bright Star”, directed by Walter Bobbie, during these unsettling times when the threat of a nuclear war hangs over our head, and a divisive, unfocused and mercurial president’s finger hovers over the button. It is currently at The Curran on Geary Blvd. San Francisco. We need a heart-warming, foot-stomping musical and this is it. “Bright Star” tells a predictable simple story of life, loss and love in a small North Carolina town, during decades of enforced segregation, where not one Black person is seen, nor are racial issues even mentioned.
The action jumps around from the 1920s just after the First World War to the ’40s and the conclusion of WWII, which can be confusing. The characters are two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs consisting a winsome girl, her patriarchal father, a young boy who lives with homespun parents, outside of town. The premise is simple: Girl (Alice, a remarkable, full-throated Carmen Cusack who reprises her original Broadway role for which she won a Tony) and boy fall in love without parental consent. He goes off to war. Girl finds she is pregnant. Here it does get dark: Girl’s father banishes her to a cabin in the woods where she has the child which he kidnaps, shoves into a satchel and tosses from the back of a train. Whaaaa?
Though the characters are stereotypes, it’s the music and the set- complete with a toy train running just below the proscenium arch- that makes this a terrific show. Unlike most musicals- and what usually turns me off- the actors don’t simply stop, turn to the audience and break into song, thus stopping the vehicle’s forward movement. No, the solos and duets flow nicely with the action and from the dialogue, which contains funny lines which we recognize as Steve Martin’s touch, with references to southern literary lights like Eudora Welty and Thomas Wolfe which characters make a point of not confusing with Tom Wolfe. There is an appealing subplot about an aspiring writer wanting to get his stories published in the local, prestigious Asheville Southern Journal.
The set consists mainly of an open-sided wooden cabin housing the bluegrass musicians under conductor P. Jason Yarcho, and through which the cast moves. One of the most remarkable things about “Bright Star” is watching how the sets and props are manipulated by the ensemble, which is accomplished with the precision of dance numbers (Sets and choreography: Eugene Lee and Lee Wilkins respectively). Yarcho not only conducts but also plays accordion and auto harp. Others get down on banjos, acoustic guitars, mandolins, bass, drums and other percussion instruments, violas and violins, and cello. As are the songs, the music is well-integrated into the play. Martha McDonnell on violin is like a character herself, letting her instrument convey her feelings about what’s going on.
Standout memorable numbers are Alice’s ( Cusack) “If You Knew My Story,” “Please don’t Take Him”, and “Bright Star;” Billy (A. J. Shively) and Daddy Cane’s (Stephen Lee Anderson) duet “She’s Gone”. Of course the musical ends with a hearty finale sung by the entire company to which the audience clapped in time. It was all I could do to restrain myself from breaking into a loud “Yee Haw!”
At The Curran Tuesdays (tonight, 12/5), at 7PM through Sundays, December 17. Go to http://sf.curran.com for tickets and more information.