It shouldn’t be totally unexpected that when Cruel Shoes author Steve Martin decides to shape a story for a Broadway musical, he’d come up with something Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty or Truman Capote might have imagined — something with a rich, Southern Gothic feel.
It shouldn’t be totally unexpected that the banjo-mad Martin would lean towards a score that’s heavily bluegrass and that Edie Brickell, who teamed with him on story, music and lyrics, would go right along.
The expected outcome, then, is the bluegrass-y, Southern-Gothic-y Bright Star, which is directed by Walter Bobbie and choreographed by Josh Rhodes with a sleekness that makes your head spin with giddy delight.
Yet while the bluegrass influence remains steady throughout — the musicians, conducted by Rob Berman, are pushed around on a moveable shack designed by Eugene Lee — Martin and Brickell decorate their Southern Gothic with the kind of filigree that O’Connor, et. al., would surely have avoided.
When the lights rise on a stripped-to-the-brick-wall stage that may recall Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack) leans out of the door of the traveling shack to sing “If You Knew My Story,” a rousing song promising that we will shortly learn it.
It’s an Our–Town-of-different-town tale which, as the lyrics to “If You Knew My Story” indicates, has its joys and has its pains. In the early 1920s, Alice, from the wrong side of the tracks, has an affair with Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Paul Alexander Nolan), who is not only from the right side of the small-town North Carolina tracks, his father is the mayor, Josiah Dobbs (Michael Mulheren). An out-of-wedlock son, then drastic results — and that’s just part of the Bright Star story.
Another part occurs right after World War II, when Alice is the editor of an Asheville journal known for publishing important budding authors, aided by caustic assistant editor Daryl Ames (Jeff Blumenkranz) and party-girl secretary Lucy Grant (Emily Padgett). The once young and naive Alice is hard-nosed; her memory of earlier, happier days is kept fresh only by her melancholy need to find the son given up for adoption so many years before.
Yet Alice’s story is not the only one Martin and Brickell aim to tell. Another slice of the chock-full plot involves young, would-be author Billy Cane (A. J. Shively), who returns from the war to Daddy Cane (Stephen Bogardus) but not to Momma Cane, whose dies before his arrival. Billy is also welcomed by Margo Crawford (Hannah Elless), a bookstore owner who had an unrequited crush on him for years.
Determined to see his stories turn up in print, Billy hustles off to Asheville and ingratiates himself with Alice. Their relationship grows throughout the musical and eventually leads to her publishing his work.
Since we’re now in Asheville — home of You Can’t Go Home Again writer Thomas Wolfe — I started to wonder if Martin and Brickell were about to offer a roman à clef version of Wolfe’s affair with New York sophisticate and costume designer Aline Bernstein. It’s a left-field conjecture, but it crossed my mind. I was wrong, but it still seemed to me that the authors still had something in mind, or in play, more than Alice and Billy being publisher and bright-star author. Then, at another point before intermission, I got another idea about what was really going on — which, in deference to spoilers, I won’t elaborate on. My point is that when an audience member is inspired to think ahead of the creative team — and I’m going to assume I’m not alone in this — it can make a protracted second act that much longer. It felt like I was waiting for the inevitable to occur.
And when the inevitable did occur, I was further let down by a wide streak of sentimentality that oozed into the action. I should report that the rest of the audience, perhaps more tolerant of sentimentality than I am, didn’t seem to mind it at all.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]I started to wonder if Martin and Brickell were about to offer a roman à clef.[/pullquote]On the formidable plus-side, there’s much more to say of the Bright Star score. Martin and Brickell’s songs are nothing to sneeze at — especially the high-spirited ones filled out by the ensemble’s superior voices. The opening number, as well as “What Could Be Better,” the anthem-like “Sun’s Gonna Shine” and a tune called “Another Round,” all stick to the brain. (Less is more for “A Man’s Gotta Do,” which Mayor Dobbs sings like Sylvester Stallone in Rocky, and less is much more for the romantic ballad “I Can’t Wait,” which hardly impresses as professional songwriting.) While watching the shack shift back and forth got a smidge repetitive, the sounds emanating from the band were choice. The fiddler, Martha McDonnell, and the bluegrass jam serving as the entr’acte were unquestionably high-points.
Dressed in Jane Greenwood’s immaculate ’20s to ’40s costumes, the cast is top drawer. Cusack’s Alice, who must personify innocence until she must personify wised-up sophistication, is utterly convincing, no matter which decade she’s placed in. Nolan is a handsome, high-stepping galoot early on and later a sadly disillusioned bachelor. Shively, Mulheren, Elless, Blumenkranz, Padgett, Anderson — and Dee Hoty, as Mama Murphy — all measure up as wonderfully, recognizably human North Carolina citizens.
Yet the real heroes here are Bobbie and Rhodes, who collaborate seamlessly to foster a special world. As the actors tirelessly adjust scenery to indicate homes of the poor, a bookstore, an office or two, a riverbank and such, their fluid movement demonstrates a director and choreographer always making certain there’s always something intriguing to watch without overdoing it.
Of the many bright stars on the Bright Star stage, theirs may be the brightest and starriest.