Did you hear the one about Steve Martin writing a musical? It's true. Along with Edie Brickell, with whom he's collaborated on a Grammy–winning album, Martin wrote Bright Star, a new musical making its Broadway debut. (Music, book, and story credit goes to Martin; music, lyric, and story credit goes to Brickell.)
The company steps out onto the set (love the rustic scenic design by Eugene Lee), and our leading lady, Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack), teases us with "If You Knew My Story." And so, for the next two hours (plus intermission), we learn her story, which takes place in North Carolina in 1945-46 and 22 years earlier. In 1945/46, Alice is the well-regarded editor-in-chief at a popular Asheville magazine. (Jeff Blumenkrantz (Murder for Two) and Emily Padgett (Side Show) provide amusing comic relief as her sassy busybody assistants, Daryl and Lucy, respectively.) It is at the magazine that she meets Billy Cane (A.J. Shively), a young man just home from the war. He's a writer, and wants Alice to publish his work.
22 years earlier, Alice was a 16-year-old living under her over-protective parents' roof. Cusack, making her Broadway debut, makes young Alice twitchy and plucky, a spirited ingenue. (This is balanced by a more guarded and gritty older Alice.) She has her sights set on Jimmy Ray (Paul Alexander Nolan), the mayor's son. Lucky for Alice, he's fond of her, too.
Director Walter Bobbie (Venus in Fur) and choreographer Josh Rhodes (Cinderella) seamlessly transition back and forth between the '40s and '20s. The show goes well as we meet Billy, see both Alices, and watch Alice and Jimmy Ray come together. And then there's a melodramatic turn. (You might be able to guess what it is; the signal for the turn is strong.) The moment arrives, and, as soon as it does, you know exactly what happened in the intervening 22 years.
The predictability is disappointing. Despite said predictability, the ending is moving because, well, we're humans. How could we not feel something? But the predictability equals a lack of investment, so while heading toward that moving ending, rather than rooting for the characters, you just feel like the train that's chugging along the top of the stage, waiting for the characters to get there.
It's not an entirely tedious ride, though. I quite enjoyed the bluegrass score (and Rob Berman's vocal arrangements), with the banjo plucking, the layering of the mandolin, and the toe-tapping percussion section. Some of the lyrics are little hokey, or wade into unexciting, recitative-type narration, though because of the country tinge, it's allowable. Not as forgivable, though, is when some of the songs start. I'm thinking, in particular, of the act two ballad, "Heartbreaker," which starts too soon, weakening what should be a dramatic and emotional moment.
That song belongs to Jimmy Ray, and, for the first time, I liked the actor playing him. That is to say that this is the first performance from Paul Alexander Nolan that has impressed me. I'd been considerably underwhelmed (or even turned off) by his previous turns, in Jesus Christ Superstar and Doctor Zhivago, but here, I found color and passion in his performance.
Avid theater goers will recognize many of the ensemble members and featured players, including Max Chernin (Brooklynite); Dee Hoty (Footloose); Michael X. Martin (The Bridges of Madison County); and A.J. Shively (La Cage aux Folles), who does nice work as Billy Cane. But the breakout (by design, I'm sure) is Broadway newcomer Carmen Cusack. (This isn't her stage debut, though. Cusack has plenty of West End and UK credits to her name.) She has a wonderful voice, strong and bold; her singing and interpretation save some of the sub-par songs.
In yet another crowded Broadway season, the stars of the show shine brightly, but the whole of Bright Star just doesn't live up to the pedigree of its parts.
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