Thursday, November 30, 2017

"Bright Star"

Bright Star
Steve Martin (Music, Book, Story) & Edie Brickell (Music, Lyrics, Story)

Carmen Cusack
Upfront, let’s just admit that some of the lyrics are full of more corn and clichés than a barn’s loft and that the story’s twists and turns are so unbelievably fantastical that even the audience laughed when the story’s dramatic ‘big reveal’ was reenacted.  And there is an earworm of “A Man’s Gotta Do” (“what a man’s gotta do”) that invades every listening ear and stubbornly remains even as one can do nothing but groan when the irritating song sung by a group of old, white men is reprised.  

But then suddenly one notices that my toes have not stopped tapping, that my hand is patting my leg keeping time with the music, and that I seem to have this perpetual and sheepish grin glued on my face.  Further, the energy in the entire Curran Theatre is fully charged; there is a constant whirling of bodies, set pieces, and even an entire house on the stage; and the star (nominated just last year for a Tony Outstanding Actress in a Musical) is one of the most impressive to land on a SF stage this year.  Yes, Steve Martin’s and Edie Brickell’s Bright Star has some musical numbers that are bland and mundane, some moments syrupy sweet as molasses or overdone as a 1890s melodrama, and a progression toward the inevitable happy ending that makes highly unlikely leaps to get there.  But hey, this is after all a musical; and on the Curran stage, this touring production with many of its original New York cast is in the end a humdinger barnstormer of a show that is a holiday gift not to be missed.

Taking place in the hills of North Carolina, Bright Star jumps back and forth between two time periods and two groups of characters that may have more connections between them than just geography.  A guy in his early twenties, Billy Crane, arrives home in Hayes Creek from World War II duty, finding his mom now is a grave and a childhood friend, Margo, with eyes and hopes focused totally on him.  However, Billy announces his design to move to the metropolis of Ashville to pursue a desired career as a writer and uses an outlandish lie to get attention of the editor of The Ashville Southern Journal. Alice Murphy is known as hardline as they come, having caused even Ernest Hemingway to collapse crying at her desk in order to get into her publication.  Billy Crane’s lie and his charm somehow find a soft spot inside that hard exterior (Miracle Number One of this fairytale-like musical); and a bond is struck that eventually leads to Billy’s first publication.

Carmen Cusack & Patrick Cummings
Alice’s advice to Billy is to write about what he knows, his home; from her view, “It would be easier to get Lincoln on Mt. Rushmore than to get home out of a Southern writer.”  That advice leads her to relive in her mind and on our stage scenes from 1923 in her hometown of Zebulon when she was just leaving her teen years and still living at home with her Bible-thumping parents.  A moonlit tryst down by the pond with the town’s hunkiest and likely richest boy, Jimmy Ray Dobbs, leads to the unintended outcome other, equally innocent, good girls have found themselves.  In this case, while Jimmy Ray is more than willing to marry Alice, his business-minded daddy and her Bible-righteous father have other ideas what should happen to the result of a kiss gone too far.  Neither baby nor boyfriend is seen again by Alice, who heads to Chapel Hill and eventually to her 1945 position as the journal editor. 

The Swirling Musicians of Bright Star
Two separate stories, two different towns, and two time periods interlock as the musical unfolds.  The stories swirl back and forth under the fabulously inventive and energetic direction of Walter Bobbie and the constantly shifting, high-spun choreography by Josh Rhodes.  A large ensemble of townspeople watch with us as the stories evolve, and they continually enter as not only passer-by witnesses and participants, but also as stagehands to position Eugene Lee’s creative set pieces, as the deliverers of props that float from one hand to the next in the blink of an eye, and as background scenes that illustrate and enhance lyrics of a front-stage song.  When called upon to be center stage, the ensemble in full and in subsets moves, glides, jumps, and dances with the full-body-and-soul enthusiasm of a Saturday night hoedown.  All the while the stage is often full of the swirls, leaps, and twirls of the ensemble, a house full of bluegrass music instruments and their players is constantly on the move, circling around more times that even Dorothy’s house in the midst of its tornado.  (Tremendous kudos goes to Music Director P. Jason Yarcho and his string-picking band of six.)  The result is one of the highest energy generating stages I have witnessed in a long time -- all done without ever taking focus away from the spotlight on the principals’ current songs or dialogues. 

When Alice opens the entire show singing, “If you knew my story, you’d have a hard time believing me,” we know immediately that Carmen Cusack is going to reign supreme on the evening’s stage.  Her voice has that perfect country/bluegrass music sound with notes emerging from somewhere deep in the throat and making their way out with just the right warbles, lingering tones, and slightly sharp edges that ensure us this is not going to be a normal, Broadway diva musical.  As the roller coaster ride of a story progresses, Ms. Cusack only becomes stronger in not only the clarity and punch of her singing but also in the authenticity of both her 1923 and 1945 selves.   The face of her Alice is one Norman Rockwell would have surely painted had he met her.  Its expressions, longing looks, and both smiles and tears leave lasting impressions on an audience whose final applause of appreciation is given standing.

A.J. Shively
Likewise impressive is A.J. Shively as Billy Cane, who delivers the musical’s title song with a brightness of tone and manner that totally works, even as we know his youthful unbounded optimism of “I’m on my way, bright star, keep shining on me” has yet to be tested.  Mr. Shively is the All-American guy in a such an innocent way that -- for this particular make-believe story -- we forgive him for being white, male, and full of luck-and-promise in a 1940s Southern world where – if we were to think about it – things are not going so well for a lot of other residents (none of whose darker skin colors is represented in this particular story or this touring cast).

Each of these two leads of the parallel stories has a love interest who fully fits the required bill to flutter audience hearts.  Patrick Cummings is the handsome Jimmy Ray who teases the Younger Alice in “Whoa Mama,” singing what we know he does not mean, “You’re pretty as a daisy, smell like a rose, make a man crazy, but it won’t be me.”  Maddie Shea Baldwin sparkles as the hometown bookstore clerk, Margo, who has high hopes about a certain author on the rise; and she proves her own vocal mettle in a late musical duet with Billy, “Always Will.”

The musical’s best-known number, “Sun is Gonna Shine” kicks off Act Two in a rousing way worthy of any barn-raising party.  Alice’s mom (played by Allison Briner-Dardenne) delivers one of the more inspirational moments of the evening as she gives that kind of heart-felt encouragement to a daughter that every kid striking it off on their own should receive: “Something tells me, it’ll be all right ... the sun is gonna shine again.”

Daddy Murphy, as played by Stephen Lee Anderson, wins many audience hearts after first across as totally hard-hearted.  As Daddy Cane, David Atkinson uses his grainy, back-hills voice to convey authentically a mountaineer’s sad truth to his son in “She’s Gone.”

Nothing short of funny and quirky are Kaitlyn Davidson and Jeff Blumenkrantz as Lucy and Daryl, office associates of Editor Alice, who join Billy for a night of hilarious drinking on the town in “Another Round”  -- a song full of bland clichés about drinking but one also accompanied by skirt-lifting, leg-splitting, and body-twirling jitterbugging. 

The lighting and sound designs of Japhy Weideman and Nevin Steinberg are knockout winners in this production.  Both continually amaze and capture the shifting times, moods, and energies of the production.  The costumes of Jane Greenwood are picture perfect for both the ‘20s and ‘40s and often are changed even as people are walking from one era into the next. 

Many of the songs in this Steve Martin/Edie Brickell musical will soon be forgotten.  What will be long remembered is the sheer energy generated by a banjo-and-guitar-picking score that excites and by a director’s genius for keeping two stories literally swirling in front of us with no confusion occurring amidst what could be a very confusing plotline of unbelievable leaps and unlikely bridges.  And when a superb cast headed by the incomparable Carmen Cusack is added, any occasional faults of lyrics or book are quickly and forever forgiven and forgotten.

Rating: 4.5

Bright Star continues through December 17, 2017 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at or by calling the Box Office at 415-358-1220 between 10 a.m. and 6 pm. Monday through Friday.

Photo Credits: Craig Schwartz

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