Bright Star

Review by Tulis McCall
29 March 2016

There is a lot of yarn being spun in Bright Star, a sprawling tale that covers a few decades in North Carolina that lead to the end of WWII. It is spun by writers Steve Martin and Edie Brickell and is a story about writers and them what love 'em. It is as hokey a tale as you would find in any black and white movie from the 40's and if Jimmy Stewart or Carole Lombard were to stroll onto the stage, no one in the audience on the night that I attended would have done a double-take.

The tale rests on the shoulders of the extraordinary Carmen Cusack in a Broadway debut that knocks the ball out of the park and out over the water. I smell a Tony nod for certain. This is her story she tells us, and although it takes a while for the story to reveal a clear direction (a few snips would not sacrifice anything in the book), once we understand the road we let go of the reins and let these folks take us for a ride.

Alice Murphy (Cusack) crosses paths with Billy Cane (A.J.Shivley) when he arrives fresh from the war with stories to tell. She is the editor and decision maker and would rival Nurse Ratched on a good day. She does, however, find Cane's writing worthy - against the predictions of her hilarious (to us) staff played by Emily Padgett (Lucy Grant) and Jeff Blumenkrantz (Daryl Ames). But as it is her life we are witnessing, we also go back to the place it all began or, you should pardon the expression, went south.

As a young thing she fell hard in love with Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Paul Alexander Nolan) who fell hard back. He was the son of the mayor, however, and circumstances plus some dirty dealing pulled them apart. She has lived a life with a closed heart and a rich brain, but all that is about to change with the arrival of Billy Cane.

Although the sweet quotient on this production is through the rough - diabetics be forewarned - there is still the honest facts of pain and disappointment. As played by Ms. Cusack, Alice tumbles into the valleys of despair and soars on the peaks of joy with delicacy and focus. There are no drawn out moments of either, but rather the sense of putting one foot in front of another and hoping for the best, but not counting on it. Life is daily and hope is a non-renewable resource that must be measured out with care.

You can see the conclusion coming a mile away like a train light in a tunnel, but the show is so exquisite in every way that you don't mind watching everything unfold. There's more content than in needed, in particular "Another Round" which takes place in the local Asheville saloon but does nothing to further the story while it shows off Padget's many talents. Songs go on a little long. Scenes could be trimmed. You get the feeling that Martin and Brickell fell in love with all these characters and couldn't resist giving each of them voice.

This is understandable. The cast is a marvel of ensemble work, and Walter Bobbie's direction is fluid and sweeping. Having the main orchestra members onstage was a wonderful choice that integrates the music into every facet of this tale.

All in all it is an evening that will take you out of the city and off to the mysterious magic of the Appalachians for two decades of stories that will get you in all the right places: Head, heart, and all the way down to the toes of your feet. Returning to the New York streets is so dramatic they should have someone make a "beginning our decent" announcement.

(Tulis McCall)

"Bluegrass on Broadway? Yes sirree. The warming sounds of banjos, fiddles and even an accordion are filling the Cort Theater, where the musical "Bright Star" opened on Thursday, bringing a fresh breeze from the South to the spring theater season."
Charles Isherwood for New York Times

"The show isn't a bullseye. But it's sweet and tender and boasts a fine cast."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News

"As a gentle fable, 'Bright Star' has a quirky charm, but its stubborn refusal to face up to its dark side diminishes it."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post

"If not much else, the musical does right by its star, the bright spot in a sky of murk."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York

"The show that opened Thursday at the Cort Theatre never hits an honest note and seems to have been written by two people who adore classic Broadway musicals but who have intentionally decided to make a third-rate version."
Mark Kennedy for Associated Press

"The most transporting element of this handsome production, along with the music, is Broadway newcomer Cusack, who leads a fine cast of solid singer-actors."
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter

"'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."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety

External links to full reviews from popular press...

New York Times - New York Daily News - New York Post - Time Out - Associated Press - Hollywood Reporter - Variety

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