Yep, that’s the real Steve Martin collaborating with roots-music queen Edie Brickell on the Old Globe premiere “Bright Star,” but not the wild and crazy guy with an arrow through his head nor the sophisticated satirist of “Shopgirl.” Rather, it’s the relaxed banjo-picking talk show guest, fingers pluckin’ out a gentle, tuneful, uninflected folk fable of loss and longing. If too rarefied for Gotham’s embrace (as the somewhat similar “Violet” was), this lyrical tuner could find ready acceptance regionally. Either way the storytelling would benefit from higher stakes and greater guts.
The plot centers on North Carolinian Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack in a well-deserved star turn), doyenne of a prestigious Southern journal just after WWII. Trussed up in Jane Greenwood’s Peck & Peck tailoring (seemingly inspired by old Celeste Holm movies), loveless Alice spews Eve Arden wisecracks at the likes of returning G.I. Billy Cane (A.J. Shively, earnestly likeable): He says “You must be Miss Murphy”; she says “I don’t have to be, but I am.” Billy’s Pepsodent toothiness belies his ambition to scale literary heights.
As an editor, Alice made Hemingway bawl. But in flashback two decades earlier, toss away the glasses and hair bun and she reverts to the wild mountain gal of her youth, cutting a swath through Zebulon in a forbidden liaison with Jimmy Ray Dobbs (an underpowered Wayne Alan Wilcox), ineffectual scion of the town boss (Wayne Duvall, chomping down on his role like it’s a stogie). Helmer Walter Bobbie carries out her transformation and the many time shifts with grace and originality, complemented by Eugene Lee’s elegant, fluid backwoods designs.
Pre- and postwar eras are linked by some 20 numbers inspired by Brickell and Martin’s Grammy-winning “Love Has Come For You.” Urbanites with no ear for bluegrass may cry repetitiousness at the narrow instrumentation (banjo, guitar, piano and bass predominating). But if any playlist could win over roots-music skeptics it’d be this one, with lilting melodies, foot-stomping rhythms (nicely exploited at key moments by choreographer Josh Rhodes) and seamless integration of character, ballad, story and locale.
Songs aside, characterizations are distinctly undercooked. Guileless Billy seems untouched by wartime service, too callow to craft greeting cards let alone the “sweeping tale of pain and redemption” Alice unaccountably expects of him.
Meanwhile, she must be the least rebellious hellion the Blue Ridge ever saw, with a preacher dad (Stephen Lee Anderson) as fundamentalist-strict as a marshmallow. The dialogue keeps alluding to hardscrabble existence and emotional damage, but the tone at the Murphy cabin is sheer “Brady Bunch.”
Things are no more fraught at the Dobbs mansion, where we can’t tell whether limp Jimmy Ray is a flawed idealist, willing pawn or just plain schlemiel. Big Daddy cackles over a revenge scheme over the Murphys’ land rights that’s promptly forgotten; thereafter his role wavers nervously between good ol’ boy buffoonery and the essence of evil.
All this sleepy ambivalence causes major problems when act one’s finale suddenly goes full Southern gothic on us, in an act of sheer horror at which Flannery O’Connor might balk. It’s hugely out of kilter with what’s come before, sending the cast through hoops of illogic and shaky motivation after intermission.
No one’s asking for a gallery of Faulknerian grotesques. “Bright Star” clearly aims to be as life-affirming as act two’s gorgeous anthem to optimism, “Sun’s Gonna Shine.” Nevertheless, the stakes have to be raised throughout. Billy, girlfriend Margo (a lovely but underused Hannah Elless), Alice and Jimmy Ray can all become more invested in each other and affected by events.
If the creative team deepened characters’ needs and ratcheted up their conflicts, we’d be readier for the climactic turn. There’s a sweeping tale of pain and redemption in “Bright Star” clamoring to come out, and when it does, the movement to restore harmony and Arcadian balance will require less suspension of disbelief. We’ll happily waft along to down-home heaven, which is precisely where the show aims to take us.