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.