Saturday, May 14, 2016

Steve Martin&Co.'s 'Bright Star' Is an Engaging Musical ... With a Country Inflection

Michael Pearce, Bennett Sullivan, Rob Berman and Martha McDonnell in "Bright Star." Photos by Nick Stokes.

BY TAMARA BECK

IT'S
unlikely that plain folk such as you or I would learn one of the more difficult stringed instruments just to strum it in a movie. Steve Martin, who decidedly is not ordinary people, apocryphally did just that.

Now, along with songwriter Edie Brickell, SM has created the musical
"Bright Star," currently enjoying an open run at the Cort Theatre. It is based on their Grammy-winning album (for best original American Roots Song).

"Bright Star" relies on the American country music of bluegrass to tell its tale of
love lost and regained. It's surprising how unusual it is for the American artform,
the musical, to be sung to American country tunes or danced to a Virginia reel.

An exception is "The Robber Bridegroom," in revival at Roundabout Theatre's off-Broadway space, the Laura Pels Theatre, through 29 May. It is also a Southern-inflected bluegrass musical. Further, like "Bright Star," in this latter musical based on a story by Eudora Welty, the musicians are on stage.

Eugene Lee's scenic design brings the country style to the cabin
that is the centerpiece of the staging in "Bright Star." Period costuming, with timeframes ranging from 1945 to 1946 and 22 years earlier, is flawlessly realized by Jane Greenwood.

The poignant and romantic tale, directed by Walter Bobbie, is as disarming and charming as its protagonist, Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack in a Tony-nominated role in her Broadway debut). Alice is the sophisticated, witty and astute editor of a big city Southern literary journal. Her roots are in a small North Carolina townlet.

On her road to success, she has not only left behind the backwater in which she was
born, but also her heart. The love she misses and recalls is for Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Paul Alexander Nolan). In flashbacks, "Bright Star" reveals just how young and foolish these two once were.

Meanwhile, in the post World War II present, Alice encounters an interesting new talent in Billy Cane (A.J. Shively) whom she mentors. During a visit to her past, Alice's parents (Stephen Lee Anderson and Dee Hoty) are welcoming, as is Billy's dad (Stephen Bogardus) when she stops by to share the news that one of Billy's short stories will be published.

Billy also reunites with Margo Crawford (Hannah Elless). She has always been his biggest booster, and was his first editor.

Among "Bright Star's" principals, CC and PAN give outstanding performances. PAN is also an admirable dancer, polishing Josh Rhodes' excellent choreography.

Carmen Cusack and the "Bright Star" Company.

In the supporting cast, Broadway veteran Michael Mulheren (as Jimmy Ray's father, Mayor Josiah Dobbs) gives a poignant portrayal. Alice's assistants, Emily Padgett as Lucy Grant and Jeff Blumenkrantz as Daryl Ames, bring pleasant levity.

Humming merrily along throughout the proceedings is the orchestra, under the direction of Rob Berman, who also takes up the piano and accordian.

Visit http://www.brightstarmusical.com/ to learn more about "Bright Star."


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