Updated: Sep 8
This Southern-Fried Musical Lights Up the Sky at Stage Door!
“Bright Star,” the collaboration between chart-topping singer-songwriter Edie Brickell (1988's “Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars”) and award-winning screenwriter, playwright and all-purpose renaissance gent Steve Martin (“Picasso at the Lapin Agile;” “Roxanne”), whose production is now on stage at Stage Door Repertory Theatre, tells a beguiling tale that unfolds in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina between 1923 and 1945.
An American musical inspired by the duo’s Grammy Award-winning alliance with “Love Has Come for You,” “Bright Star” is about a young soldier named Billy Cane, just home from World War II, who meets Alice Murphy, the brilliant editor of a southern literary journal. Together they discover a powerful secret that alters their lives.
Director Nick Charles (“Jekyll & Hyde the Musical;” “Jesus Christ Superstar;” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”), celebrating his 49th year in theatre, captains this entertaining enactment of enduring love, family ties, and the light of forgiveness with a top-notch cast and crew, making the production feel much larger than its footprint.
The Steve Martin–Edie Brickell musical, with its bluegrass-tinged score and Southern literary allusions, is modestly winsome, gentle-spirited, and moves with an easygoing grace telling a sentiment-spritzed story. Especially gratifying is Martin’s grounded humor, which veers from the wacky comedy we usually associate him with. Instead, the piece has the feel of true inspiration and inventiveness.
Based on a true story of the 1902 Iron Mountain Baby, “Bright Star” features 19 infectious songs, all refreshingly chockablock with exposition and woven with warmhearted simplicity. The show’s prime asset is the catchy score (which may produce "stuck song syndrome"), steeped in the toe-tapping sounds of everything from authentic hoedown square dancing to old fashioned bluegrass knee slapping (think a rootsy, tuneful version of “Oklahoma!” without the dream ballet) — so much, that the propulsive first act hardly takes a break from applause as songs and dialogue rush forward together. Once the narrative reaches the second act, musical comedy heaven is upon us, and the tidy ending will leave you teary-eyed with a spring in your heart. For novitiate musical writers, this is nothing short of a miracle.
The story is simple and familiar: As World War II ends, a young soldier and aspiring writer named Billy Cane (Brian Wiegel; “West Side Story”) seeks out the older version of Alice, hoping to get his stories published. She admires his disarming pluck, and as they ease into each other’s orbit (the show’s title takes on multiple meanings), a series of time-jumping scenes unspool the struggles and heartbreaks deep in Alice’s past, which soon comes to life onstage.
Alice Murphy (Vanessa Cedeno; “Sweeney Todd”) is the heart of the show, the no-nonsense editor of the Ashville Southern Journal, a prominent literary magazine. In a well-staged moment in which she swaps both costumes and eras, we learn Alice was once an optimistic and free-spirited young gal, courting Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Derek Mitchell; “Guys and Dolls”), dashing son of the local mayor. But although their love was pure, it falls victim to the interference of ambitious parents.
Ms. Cedeno proves an ideal fit for the role, feeling like a real discovery with her appealing authenticity. She pivots convincingly between spirited young woman and hardened cynic, her honeyed voice sitting comfortably in the seductive twang of country, soaking into all the nooks and crannies the genre asks it to.
She can either soar or sear at will, radiating with passion, or the wistful regret of a heart long broken and slow to heal.
Brian Wiegel as Billy also makes for an appealing male ingenue—he’s one of those young actors who seem born for revivals of mid-century musicals, with the attitude and physicality that charms all ages.
The production gleams, sound is vibrant and crisp, and the broadly sketched numbers are either lively feel-good rousers or laments with generalized lyrics the listener can easily identify with.
We are presented, for instance, with how a character feels while knitting one's soon-to-be born baby's sweater in "I Can't Wait," a selfless promise of being ready for a departed lover's return from "Ashville," the enchanting, "Way Back in the Day," as Alice wistfully remembers simpler times, and the down-home rave-up, "Firmer Hand," by Mr. Comeau’s God-fearing Daddy Murphy, who keeps scolding the wayward Alice as it skitters along to the rhythm of foot-stomps, despite the daughter's wearied "Do Right" countering.
The determinedly optimistic title song bursts with a fervent desire to succeed and have adventures. In its restless "I want" assurance, it has the energy of The Fantasticks' "I Can See It" with the danger signals and warnings conveniently removed. But the song, “Bright Star,” has a much earthier feel with unabashedly folksy-sweet flavor, and breezes along on such gentle gusts of optimism that it ends with a chorus of spirited whistling. Many of the numbers in fact can be considered exuberant, such as the succinct, it'll-get-better outlook in "Sun’s Gonna Shine” at the top of Act 2, which drives the message home with its chipperness.
Also, a perfectly sole aural spotlight in the show is "A Man's Gotta Do," led by menacing-voiced Bruce McCoy, when it develops into a father/son counterpoint battle with Mr. Mitchell’s Jimmy Ray, and reprises at the end of the first act. Mr. McCoy’s love-to-loath-him villainy of Mayor Dobbs is spine-chilling. Also effective is “Another Round,” which evokes sympathy, laughter, and dance as Rebecca Thomas’ Lucy drowns her sorrows in alcohol.
The show also gets strong performances from a well-seasoned supporting cast, including Robin Walton (“Beauty and the Beast”) as Daddy Cane; Lindsey Eubanks (“She Kills Monsters”) as Margo Crawford, Billy's romantic interest; Evan Fredericks (“Little Shop of Horrors”) as Max/Ensemble; Grace Melody Juell (“Oliver”) as Florence/Ensemble; Jordan Ward (“Oklahoma!”) as Edna/Ensemble; and Shawn Pluckett (“Safer Apart”) as Daryl Ames.
Rebecca Thomas (“Breaking Up is Hard to Do”) as Lucy Grant; Sherry Domerego (“Damn Yankees”) as Mama Murphy; Eric J. Hindley (“Sweeney Todd”) as Stanford Adams and the Stationmaster; Wayne Hundley (“Addams Family the Musical”) as Dr. Norquist/Ensemble; Selena Browning (“Bare: the Pop Opera”) as the County Clerk/Ensemble; and Marcus Veyette (“Young Frankenstein”) as Jimmy Ray Dobbs understudy/swing/Ensemble. Rounding out the estimable company Ensemble is Quintin Burrola (“Beauty and the Beast”) and Spencer Sharp (“Hairspray”).
Directed, Set Designed and Produced by Nick Charles (Artistic Director), the Musical Director is Rick Heckman (“42nd Street”), Sound Designer is Shawn Brewer, Choreographer is Casey Garritano (“Singin’ In The Rain”), Dance Captain is Jordan Ward, Lighting Designer is Miranda Carpenter, Costume Designer is Julie Charles and Stage Manager is Donna Nelson.
“Bright Star,” a sweeping tale of pain and redemption, inspired by a true story, with music, book and story by Steve Martin and music, lyrics and story by Edie Brickwell, will continue playing to a full house through September 25th at Stage Door Repertory, Anaheim Hills. Don't wait! You will want to see this show! For further information and tickets, please visit http://www.stagedoorrep.org/
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Amy Gettys