REVIEW: "Bright Star," - Candlelight Pavilion, Claremont
Updated: Jun 20
“…Heart strings get tugged on something fierce as this 1920s North Carolina yarn unfurls in grass roots harmonies and tear-stained melodies.”
Did Candlelight Pavilion go bluegrass?
Yes sirreebob! Right now a “Bright Star” is shining over the famed dinner theater in Claremont through May 25th, casting a sparkling, incandescent glow over the city with its rich brew of Americana, and down-home nostalgia.
The warming sounds of banjos, violins, infectious country rhythms, dressed-up jaunty roots rock, gospel, and soulful ballads inspired knee-slapping in a place where knees aren’t often slapped—where the fiddle music is from the style of a classical violin.
Perhaps more surprising is the source of the songs that give a heady lift to this nostalgia-tinged show, a romantic tale set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina in 1946, with flashbacks to 1923. The authors are Grammy winners Steve Martin, better known as a comic, actor and occasional novelist, and Edie Brickell, who rose to pop-chart fame some time ago. You may remember, if you’re a “Generation X” baby or before, the 1988 album, "Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians," which went to No. 4 on the Billboard 200 chart. She is married to Paul Simon.
While working on their albums, whose songs combine Ms. Brickell’s elliptical lyrics, layered harmonies and airy vocals along with Mr. Martin’s bluegrass compositions, the collaborators began to realize that some of their tunes were telling a story, especially their most recent bluegrass album, “Love Has Come for You,” — one Ms. Brickell said was infused with “the spirit of a young girl who’s forthcoming and self-possessed.”
Working together, they formed the basis for the music and the story of “Bright Star” from the album, with Mr. Martin providing the book and Ms. Brickell the lyrics. The resulting bluegrass score features more twangs per diphthong than a whole evening of “Tobacco Road.”
It’s quite possible that some inspiration on Steve Martin’s book comes from Hollywood’s legendary directors doing films about unwed mothers. D. W. Griffith and Mitchell Leisen are two, but Delmer Daves may top the illegitimate-babies list with his great knocked-up trilogy of “Susan Slade,” “Parrish,” and “A Summer Place,” his masterpiece from 1959. In those films, Sandra Dee and Connie Stevens took turns being impregnated by either Grant Williams or Troy Donahue. “A Summer Place,” as well as “To each His Own and “Way Down East” are also set to a bluegrass score, have similar plots and represent poor families or broken homes.
“Bright Star” is about all those things: an illegitimate baby, bad parents, money, greed, despair. But before the heroine of “Bright Star” gives birth, actress Christanna Rowader is perkier than a June bug in a pasture of alfalfa.
Originally directed by Walter Bobbie and choreographed by Josh Rhodes, “Bright Star” was nominated for five Tony Awards, a Drama Desk Award, and two Outer Critics Circles Awards. A national tour was then launched in October, 2017, beginning at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, and continued through July 1, 2018, followed by Musical Theatre West of Long Beach purchasing all rights, sets and costumes of the original show.
In Candlelight Pavilion’s "Bright Star," this boldly romantic musical, set against the rich backdrop of the American South, is both down-home and Broadway-slick under Chuck Ketter’s peerless direction. Propelled by an ensemble of onstage musicians and dancers,
the story unfolds in a rich tapestry of deep emotion, beautiful melodies and powerfully moving performances. From the very first song, “If You Knew My Story,” you are thrust into the folktale, just as if you were living it.
In 1923, a smart and sassy girl named Alice Murphy (the excellent Ms. Rowader) and a nice, well-to-do boy named Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Nic Olsen) fall in love. “You got a little
wildcat about you,” he tells her, admiringly. But Jimmy Ray’s father, Mayor Josiah Dobbs (big, blustery, “J.K. Simmons look-alike” Richard Malmos) has high ambitions for his son, and puritanical Daddy Murphy (portrayed expertly by Greg Nicholas), Bible in hand, preaches hellfire and damnation to his daughter. When Alice gives birth to a boy out of wedlock, the fathers force the lovers apart and make off with the baby, devastating her and derailing the young couple's hopes of
marriage and a happy ending together.
Years later, in 1946, a young soldier named Billy Cane (the amazing Zach Fogel) comes home from World War II and can’t help noticing how little Margo Crawford (Emily Chelsea) 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.
By now Alice is a successful, but rather callous and hardened, magazine editor. Even discovering a young Tennessee Williams hasn’t made her happy.
The two stories converge with a twist that verges on clichéd in the second act as the plotlines come together, but Ms. Rowader remains a mesmerizing revelation in the role, capturing Alice’s youthful exuberance and grown-up steeliness in equal measure. She never stops conveying a heartrending truth so raw that she hits you where you live. You may see many of the shocks and jolts coming from miles away but it hardly matters. When she is lilting her way through the show’s aching melodies, it’s hard not to feel the white hot heat of pain with her.
In fact, Ms. Rowader seems lit from within throughout the show. She elevates this effervescent piece, adding depth to the lyrics and burnishing every melody to a fine sheen with her delicate twang. The actress also magically transforms from the giddiness of youth to the stiffness of middle age with a simple fluttering change of dress.
Other stand-outs include Dylan Pass, who plays Daryl Ames, one of Alice's kooky underlings at the Journal, who reels off his character's campy wisecracks with delicious sass, and Dayna Sauble, as she slinks around the stage as sultry, Southern, good-time gal Lucy Grant. Lucy is a smart, working woman who dreams of one day being a literary censor, but is also a shameless flirt who could drink any man under the table.
Chuck Kettle’s nimble direction heightens the sense of intimacy of this homespun musical, and Kelly Baker’s Choreography is a recreated work of art, thanks to Fred and Adele Astaire Award nominated Josh Rhodes for Original Choreography. With everything from country, western promenades, east coast swing, ten-step polkas, cowboy cha-cha, a two-step barn dance, and even a square dance with a caller, the choreography frequently supports the scenes with understated background activity, never distracting from the bittersweet songs which are the show’s spine.
Now picture clear, starry skies with nothing to light up the darkness other than the countless fireflies in the air and a flickering old coal-oil lamp on a one-room cabin porch. Bullfrogs are bellowing, there’s a fresh, cool, night-air breeze blowing from the south, and thousands of crickets chirping in chorus…perhaps, barely audible, off in the distance, somebody is softly picking a banjo. This common scene in the Blue-Ridge Mountains is fully realized with Eugene Lee’s versatile, rustic set.
There are intimate playing spaces for storytelling scenes and room for expansion when needed for ensemble numbers with a hearty chorus of singers and dancers. But the really neat trick is the unassuming, wooden cabin with a revolving framework that houses the musicians, the heart of the musical. The cabin (and band inside, other than drums on house left and stand-up bass on house right) moves in and out of action as needed in quick order, seemingly spinning on a dime.
The score is ever entrancing. That opening number mentioned earlier, a driving reflection sung by Alice as she introduces the tale, has a wonderful folky ambiance with lines like “I left my clothes on that cold river rock, my cares and my woes rolled up in my socks, I laid down on that mountain stream, and the icy water rushed over me.” The musical is infused with this kind of beautiful envisioning of a bygone era. The show’s “Finale” also has a hymnal quality to it with the characters singing “I have a vision of how life will go, everything is wonderful and I love you so, Love let me lift this veil of darkness.”
The sentimental "Asheville," projects a sense of deep longing and simple tendencies that nearly bursts out between the lines. It’s a lovely song, beautifully sung by Ms. Chelsea 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 wields 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 did not quite have the courage to speak her true heart to Billy.
Ditties such as the frisky “Whoa, Mama,” featuring Mr. Olsen and Ms. Rowader, and the uplifting “Sun’s Gonna Shine,” with Mama Murphy (Dynell Leigh) and Ms. Rowader, Daddy Cane (Jamie Snyder), Ms. Chelsea, Edna (Monica Pena) and Florence (Lisa Stone) sweep the listener away to a less cynical place and time, summing up the show’s insistent optimism. The hootenanny-style homage to booze, “Another Round,” is also so galvanic and light-hearted, featuring brassy Lucy Grant (Ms. Sauble), who shines like a bright star in this number with Mr. Fogel, Mr. Pass, and the ensemble.
And, speaking of "Bright Star," the upbeat title song, crooned by Mr. Fogel, breezes along on such gentle gusts of exuberance, while the enchanting "I Can’t Wait," featuring Ms. Rowader and Mr. Olsen ebbs and flows sweetly as a country lullaby; "Way Back in the Day" is Alice's pretty and wistful remembrance of simpler times; and the bristling rave-up, "Firmer Hand," in which the God-fearing Daddy Murphy (Mr. Nicholas) scolds the wayward Alice as Mama Murphy (Ms. Leigh) provides comfort, skitters along to the rhythm of foot-stomps in some of Choreographer Kelly Baker’s (ably bolstered by Assistant Choreographer Rachel McLaughlan’s) most vivid work.
The company features impeccable acting, absolutely perfect synchronization in movement, and authentic mountain songs. The cast additionally features Nicholas Alexander as Max/Ensemble, Tucker Boyes as Doctor Norquist/Ensemble, John Wilford McGavin as Ensemble as well as the Trainmaster, Kirklyn Robinson as Kate and a Government Clerk/Ensemble, Thomas Stanley as Stanford Adams/Ensemble (featured in "Please, Don't Take Him," along with Mr. Malmos as Mayor Dobbs, Ms. Rowader, Mr. Nicholas and Ms. Leigh). Katie McGhie is Alice Murphy’s understudy. Micah Tangermann is Ensemble.
The Artistic Director is John LaLonde, Stage Manager is Caleb Shiba, Producer is Mindy Teuber and Vice President is “Mick” Bollinger. Candlelight Pavilion Owner is Lois Bollinger. Sound Engineer is Nick Galvan, Lighting Design is by Aspen Rogers, Assistant Lighting by Jonathan Daroca, Costume Designs by Jane Greenwood, Costumes Coordinated by Merrill Grady and Wigs are by Michon Gruber-Gonzales. Costumes, wigs, sets and props are courtesy of Musical Theatre West.
Band members include Ryan O’Connell as Conductor/Music Director/Keyboards; Max Wagner plays Banjo, Julian Cantrell is on Bass, Alan Waddington plays Drums/Percussion, Adrian Vega is on Guitar, and James Saunders and Megan Shung-Smith are on Violin.
But banjos and fiddles aren’t the only instruments plucked with Candlelight Pavilion’s newest musical, “Bright Star.” Heart strings get tugged on something fierce as this 1920s North Carolina yarn unfurls in bluegrass harmonies and tear-stained melodies. Called “an uplifting theatrical journey that holds you tight in its grasp,” it’s mostly a tale about the stories we tell... and the ones we don’t.
Bright Star continues through May 25th, with performances Friday, Saturday evenings with dinner seating at 6pm, and curtain at 8pm, Saturday and Sunday matinees luncheon seating at 11am, and curtain at 12:45pm; Sunday evenings with dinner seating at 5pm, and curtain at 7pm. An additional Thursday evening performance is set for May 9th. For further information and tickets, go online at: https://www.candlelightpavilion.com/ This show has the highest recommendation!
photo credits: Demetrios Katsantosis