Reviewed by STEPHEN RADOSH
Reviewed by STEPHEN RADOSH
Now playing at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles is BRIGHT STAR, an original musical with Book and Music by Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin) and Lyrics and Music by Edie Brickell. But just because Steve Martin, that wild and crazy guy, did the book, don’t expect a laugh-til-it-hurts comedy. What he has created is broadly melodramatic with a not so surprising surprise ending that only the likes of William Shakespeare could get away with. But Mr. Martin does inject enough wry humor to succeed in keeping the musical from slipping totally into a diabetic coma inducing sweetness or multi-Kleenex needed sob story as found in many a Lifetime movie.
After an intriguing opening number, “If You Knew My Story,” which clearly sets the tone and style of the musical, the story itself begins in 1945 as the young soldier and aspiring writer Billy Cane (A.J. Shively) returns to his home in Hayes Creek, North Carolina only to be told by his father that his mother had passed away while he was gone. Billy begins to write short stories with his longtime gal pal Margo (Maddie Shea Baldwin), who now runs the town’s only bookstore, acting as his editor and sounding board. It is instantly clear that Billy will wind up with Margo although he has yet to see it.
With a handful of his stories in tow, Billy heads off to Ashville with hopes of being published in the prestigious Asheville Southern Journal. There he meets Daryl (Jeff Blumenkrantz) and Lucy (Kaitlyn Davidson) who work there and supply much of the show’s comedy. He also meets Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack), its hard-edged editor who we quickly realize, despite her short and distant manner, has a heart of gold. Seeing promise in his work, she gives him $10 and tells him to give his work “a voice of its own” before sending him away with instructions to “find a sweeping tale of pain and redemption.”
The show then goes back 22 years where we see the young Alice, a teenage spitfire full of independence and gifted with a quick wit and a way with words. She is in love with Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Patrick Cummings) and when she gets pregnant they happily agree to get married. But his father, Mayor Josiah Dobbs (Jeff Austin), has other plans for his son. So, when she gives birth to a baby boy, the mayor and Alice’s father (Stephen Lee Anderson) force the lovers apart and the Mayor takes the baby away to be put up for adoption.
Throughout the musical, the play shifts back and forth between these two time periods until bringing the two stories together just in time to neatly wrap everything up and put a smile on the audience’s faces. Any further plot synopsis would stray dangerously into spoiler territory. But rest assured all wrongs are righted and happiness finally comes to all!
While the lyrics far too often feel generic, the authentic sounding blue-grass infused score ranging from toe-tapping rhythms to mournful ballads fits the actions and moods of the play perfectly.
There are some wonderful performances in this production. As the wannabe writer Billy Crane, A.J. Shively conveys all the hope and enthusiasm for the future that only the young can have.
Patrick Cummings as Alice’s love interest fleshes out what could easily be a one-dimensional role into someone we come to know and care about.
Providing much of the well needed laughter to offset the drama of the main storyline are Jeff Blumenkrantz and Kaitlyn Davidson as the duo who work for the usually icy Alice. They not only score every one of their jokes but have added richness and texture to their characters and give you the sense that these two office workers have a great working relationship and friendship even when they are playfully nipping at each other’s heels.
But it is the radiant performance of Carmen Cusack, who was nominated for a Tony for the role on Broadway, which elevates the musical into a show well worth seeing. She has an amazing voice and a stage presence that makes you realize she is truly a star. As the play moves back in forth in time, she seamlessly switches between the teenage Alice and the adult that she becomes and is totally credible as both. She is so dynamic a performer that when she is onstage, it is hard to focus on anyone else. That could be a detriment to some plays but in this case she never loses focus and is truly that glue that holds it all together. In her second act number, “At Long Last,” she shines from within with all the vibrancy of, dare I say it, a bright star.
The set by veteran designer Eugene Lee is deceptively simple yet manages to convey dozens of different locations clearly as well as being a home to almost all of the show’s musicians (there are a couple stuck in the orchestra pit). Director Walter Bobbie makes great use of the space with a constant kinetic energy and movement of both scenery and cast. Scene changes and prop appearances are seamlessly integrated into the action and are as cleverly choreographed as the couple of explosive dance numbers created by Josh Rhodes.
BRIGHT STAR is playing at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown L.A. now through November 19, 2017 then on to the Curran Theatre in San Francisco from November 28–December 17, 2017.