Broadway Review: Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s ‘Bright Star’

Bright Star review musical
Nick Stokes

A little bit of bluegrass music is quite enough of a good thing, so it’s just bad luck that “Bright Star,” a new musical by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell based on their 2013 Grammy-winning album, “Love Has Come for You,” opened hard on the heels of two Off Broadway bluegrass musicals (“The Robber Bridegroom,” “Southern Comfort”).  “Bright Star” is Broadway-slick under Walter Bobbie’s direction, with top-rung creatives involved in the production (which began at the Old Globe) and an appealing lead performance from Carmen Cusack. But the sheer scale of the package overwhelms this sweet but slender homespun material.

The book (written by Martin from a story he and Brickell worked out together) is set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and divided into two separate time frames, each with its own set of boy/girl lovers.

In 1923, a smart and sassy girl named Alice Murphy (the excellent Cusack) and a very nice boy named Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Paul Alexander Nolan) fall in love. (“You got a little wildcat about you,” he tells her, admiringly.) But Jimmy Ray’s father, Mayor Josiah Dobbs (big, blustery Michael Mulheren) has high ambitions for his son, and puritanical Daddy Murphy (Stephen Lee Anderson) preaches hell and damnation to his daughter. When Alice gives birth to a boy, the fathers force the lovers apart and make off with the baby.

Years later, in 1945, a young soldier named Billy Cane (A.J. Shively) comes home from the war and can’t help noticing how little Margo Crawford (Hannah Elless) has grown into such a pretty young woman. But Billy wants to be a writer like Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. So he packs up his manuscripts and heads for Asheville in the hope of being published in the Asheville Southern Journal. Lucky for him, his talent is noticed and encouraged by the editor of the literary journal — none other than Alice Murphy.

Eugene Lee’s versatile set looks properly rustic while performing multiple dramatic duties. There are intimate playing spaces for storytelling scenes and room for expansion when choreographer Josh Rhodes needs it for ensemble numbers with a hearty chorus of singers and dancers. But the really neat trick was constructing (on a revolve) the framework for a wood cabin to house the musicians.

Although the players are hidden or only partially glimpsed for much of the show, the sound of their instruments — guitar, mandolin, banjo, violin, viola, fiddle, accordion, piano, drums and autoharp — soars through the house. Martin is an accomplished banjo player and the sweetly melodic music he writes with Brickell sounds completely authentic. But after a bunch of choruses, they also sound repetitive, like the upbeat (and endless) “Sun’s Gonna Shine” that sums up the show’s insistent optimism.

American roots music is grounded in the English narrative ballad, so it makes sense that Brickell’s literate but plot-driven lyrics are intended to advance the story.  The very first number, “If You Knew My Story,” actually announces the show’s intentions. The big drawback to the chatty lyrics is that they re-hash the plot’s melodramatic content, but neglect to deepen or explore the characters, who all speak in such exaggerated twangs they sound dimwitted.

The tune “Asheville” is a striking exception. It’s a lovely song, beautifully sung by Elless as Margo, who is left behind by Billy after he makes his declaration of independence in the title song and strikes out for the bright lights of the big city. The music exerts an emotional tug that resonates in the aching love lyrics.

“If it don’t work out / You can turn around / And come on back to me / Come on back to me / You can come on home to me.”  Unlike the long-winded narrative songs, the words are simple, direct and all the more poignant because Margo didn’t have the courage to speak her heart to Billy, unable to express her feelings except through this song.

bright-star-review

Broadway Review: Steve Martin and Edie Brickell's 'Bright Star'

Cort Theater; 1048 seats; $145 top. Opened March 24, 2016. Reviewed March 19. Running time: TWO HOURS, 15 MIN.

Production

A production by Joey Parnes, Sue Wagner, John Johnson, Zebulon LLC, Jay Alix & Una Jackman, Len Blavatnik, James L. Nederlander, Carson & Joseph Gleberman, and Balboa Park Productions, in association with Roger Hess, Broadway Across America, Sally Jacobs & Warren Baker, Exeter Capital, Agnes Gund, True Love Productions, and The Old Globe, of a musical in two acts, with book by Steve Martin, music by Martin and Edie Brickell, lyrics by Brickell, based on a story by Martin and Brickell.

Creative

Directed by Walter Bobbie. Choreographed by Josh Rhodes. Sets, Eugene Lee; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Japhy Weideman; sound, Nevin Steinberg; hair & wigs, Tom Watson; orchestrations, August Eriksmoen; music supervision, Peter Asher; music direction & vocal arrangements, Rob Berman; production stage manager, Michael J. Passaro.

Cast

Carmen Cusack, Paul Alexander Nolan, Michael Mulheren, A.J. Shively, Hannah Elless, Stephen Bogardus, Dee Hoty, Stephen Lee Anderson, Emily Padgett, Jeff Blumenkrantz.

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  1. Drew says:

    This is a great new play. I thought the story was well told. I did not think the music was overdone – an in fact thought it was well integrated with the very sweet story. I guess it is too bad this was released on the heels of two other similar shows, but not having seen them, the blue grass theme did not seem repetitive to me. I think Martin and Brickell have brought a wonderful new piece of American musical theater to the stage. Well done.

  2. Steven Brown, MD says:

    Sorry, Ms. Stasio, but I respectively disagree with your assessment. While contrived, several parts of this musical absolutely moved me beyond tears. This was an outstanding night at the theatre, and fully deserving of complete praise.
    We are so blessed to bear witness to such creative talent. I am filled with gratitude.

    • Candi says:

      Totally agree with the positive reviews. I came for the music but left with so much more. One minute you hear weeping, the next laughter rings throughout the theater. The band and actors made this a memorable and fantastic birthday! I hope Bright Star shines on!

  3. Christine Wittmann says:

    My daughter and I saw Bright Star yesterday at the matinee and loved it. We found the actors totally engaging and I was especially impressed with Carmen Cusack. She truly deserves her Tony nomination. We found the set design to be very clever. It is rustic, interchangeable and allowed the music and the musicians to be totally integrated into the play. The train running along the top of the stage was a very endearing touch. The story was a bit cliche but we spent a most enjoyable afternoon in an intimate theatre. Hope there is a surge of ticket sales now that it is nominated for best musical.

  4. Jeannette Rinehart says:

    We saw the production at the Kennedy Center. Loved the music and staging and cast. Story was askew. Girls did not go to UNC Chapel Hill in the 20’s & 30’s. They did not go as freshmen when I was in school in North Carolina in the 50’s. I wished for Hal Prince or someone to tighten the story to make it worthy of the music and staging.

  5. Bernadette Kelly says:

    My daughter and I enjoyed the show tremendously. The cast was so talented and the music was wonderful. You will leave the theater feeling good. I highly recommend it.

  6. Caroline Wright says:

    ALL of the bluegrass music could NEVER be enough for some of us!!!

  7. amy roth says:

    MY FRIENDS AND I ADORED THIS SHOW. So did my roommate’s son, daughter, son-in-law and grandson. It would be such a shame if reviews like this one keep it from being the huge hit it deserves to be.

    • Ron says:

      I totally agree Amy! We saw this on March 26th and totally loved this show (I’m not even a bluegrass fan). I was thinking this could sweep the Tony’s and then then I see these reviews. Were the reviewers at the right show?

  8. Susan Fesler says:

    Marilyn- Your opening line of the Bright Star review is insulting to the culture of bluegrass music. If you think the genre on the whole is only worth hearing in small doses, you certainly do not understand the depth of the tradition, and you invalidate yourself as a qualified reviewer of the piece.

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