Bright Star. Music, Book and Story by Steve Martin; Music, Lyrics and Story by Edie Brickell. Directed by Walter Bobbie. Curran Theatre, 445 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA, 94102.
Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s Bright Star rolls into San Francisco as part of its 2017-18 national tour and it’s a winner. The award-winning show, which had a short run on Broadway, received 5 Tony nominations and critical acclaim for its star Carmen Cusack. The story is sweet and homespun, perhaps a tad to fairy tale-ish. But suspending belief is what theatre is all about and Bright Star will charm even a hardened realist and win over those unfamiliar with bluegrass music.
Carmen Cusack reprises her strong role as Alice Murphy, the regretful editor whose tutelage of a young, aspiring writer ignites her longing to reconcile her past. It’s a stunning performance of emotional rawness and vulnerability. Joining Cusack from the original cast are A.J. Shively as Billy Kane; Jeff Blumenkrantz as Daryl, and Stephen Lee Anderson as Daddy Murphy.
The story is set in post-war North Carolina circa 1945-46, where Alice is a successful literary editor at a prestigious journal with a sad, secret past that neither her assistants Daryl (Blumenkrantz) or Lucy (Kaitlyn Davidson) are aware. Into their office strides aspiring writer Billy Kane, a recently returned soldier, who’s following the bright star he sings of in the title track. Alice takes him under her wing and the story swings back and forth between present and 1923 where we bear witness to Alice’s rural youth. As I said earlier, the plot has its fairy-tale aspects along with some Shakespearean attributes as well. There’s high melodrama, mistaken identities and plenty of romance. While these oft preposterous coincidences might be a turn off to some, I bought it all. Maybe I’m a sucker for hit you over the head sentimentality, but I don’t see that as a bad thing.
Martin and Brickell’s score, filled with banjos and fiddles, is new to the Broadway ear. It is not Lerner and Lowe by any means; often clunky and obvious. There are some beautiful moments: Cusack opening number “If You Knew My Story”; Billy’s optimistic “Bright Star”; the Murphy women singing “Sun is Gonna Shine” even in the darkest moments and the young lovers Billy and Margo’s “Always Will”. The supporting cast all deliver strong performances even if their characters lack development and substance; Stephen Lee Anderson and Allison Briner-Dardenne as Ma and Pa Murphy, Maddie Shea Baldwin as Margo, Jeff Austin as the villain Mayor Josiah Dobbs and Jeff Blumenkrantz as the acerbic Daryl Ames.
The look and staging of this production is an equal star to Cusack and A.J. Shively’s stellar performances. Eugene Lee’s scenic design is homespun rural 1920’s; the centerpiece a wood framed cabin to hide the band and double as the poor folk’s homes. Japhy Weiderman’s lighting and Jane Greenwood’s costumes immerse you in rural North Carolina. Kudos to Josh Rhodes for his delightful choreography and August Ericksmoen for his orchestrations.
Bright Star wears its big heart on its sleeve, tugging at it throughout the show before delivering a sugar sweet finale. It resonates strongly with audiences who empathize with Alice’s sense of loss, unfulfillment and yearning for wholeness. I think we all secretly would love to be a part of a fairytale ending and Bright Star delivers.
Performances run thru December 17, 2017 www.sfcurran.com 415.358.1220