Monday, September 16, 2019

"Bright Star"

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

Elizabeth Santana
When Alice rotates from the rear to step away from a stage full of townspeople to face us, she opens the show singing, “If you knew my story, you’d have a hard time believing me. ” Immediately we know that Elizabeth Santana is going to make this an evening to relish and remember.  The Managing Director who usually is out front greeting us as audience as we arrive at Palo Alto Players’ Lucie Stern Theatre surprises us tonight not only by starring on stage but also by singing those first few notes with a voice strikingly pure, emotionally authentic, and genuinely exciting.  Already we recognize tonight’s Mississippi-born-and bred star’s natural ease and instinct for the bluegrass, folk, and country mixture of music that Steve Martin and Edie Brickell have written for their 2014 musical, Bright Star.  More than that, however, it is the look in those eyes that tell us that Elizabeth Santana’s Alice has in fact seen and experienced an incredible story that we need now to pay attention and to hear.

But we are actually already quite primed for the opening of the 89th season of Palo Alto Players.  As we approached the theatre, an outdoors bluegrass band plucked and fiddled with great aplomb, delaying an entire courtyard of head-nodding, foot-tapping, and big-smiling people from going indoors.  That group of four was soon joined on stage by five others under the excellent musical direction of Daniel Hughes where instruments from mandolin to viola to cello will combine with the likes of banjo, guitar, and fiddle to keep those toes tapping and sheepish grins glued on faces for the rest of this rip-roaring-and-sweet-melody, two-hour, thirty-minute evening.

Taking place in the hills of North Carolina, Bright Star jumps back and forth between two time periods and two groups of characters that we suspect may have more connections between them than just geography.  A guy in his early twenties, Billy Cane, arrives home in Hayes Creek from World War II duty, finding his mom now in a grave and a childhood friend and bookstore owner, Margo, with eyes and hopes focused totally on him.  However, Billy announces his design to move to the metropolis of Ashville in order to pursue a desired career as a writer and uses an outlandish lie to get attention of the editor of The Asheville 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 Cane’s brazen but obvious lie and his charm somehow find a soft spot inside that stern-faced, hard-exterior editor (Miracle Number One of this fairytale-like musical); and a bond is struck that eventually leads to Billy’s first publication.

Elizabeth Santana & Frankie Mulcahy
Alice’s advice to Billy is to write about what he knows, his home because from her experience, “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 on scholarship and eventually to her 1945 position as the noted journal’s editor. 

Two separate stories, two different towns, and two time periods interlock as the musical unfolds.  The stories swirl back and forth under the small stage’s intimately expressed direction with its big-stage energy and enthusiasm, all due to the inspiration and inventiveness of Artistic Director Patrick Klein, the evening’s stage director.  An ensemble of various townspeople watches with us from various spots on the stage as the two stories evolve, continually entering as not only passer-by witnesses and participants of the stories but also as stagehands to position the director’s own-designed set pieces, as the deliverers of props that float from one hand to the next in the blink of an eye, and as hugging or dancing, background couples that illustrate and enhance lyrics of a front-stage song.

When called upon to be center stage, the ensemble in full and in subsets heel clicks, foot stomps, and dosey-does with the full-body-and-soul enthusiasm of a Saturday night hoedown.  The background and/or stage-circling swirls, leaps, and twirls in line- and square-dance fashions generate electric energy under the direction of choreographer Meredith Joelle Charlson.

Those opening, positive impressions of Elizabeth Santana as Alice only usher in an ever-growing realization that her Alice is the real deal, with the actor not only progressively getting stronger and even more sure in delivering her Southern-accented vocals, but also continually delivering face-validity and authenticity to both her 1923 and 1945 personas.  She melts our hearts when singing a loving lullaby to her unborn baby, “I Can’t Wait,” breaks those same hearts when her song cries with despair in “Please Don’t Take Him,” and sends our audience hearts soaring when she triumphantly sings “At Long Last” as her life resurrects in a climax we all know is bound to come.  And all along the way, we never question the logically unlikely transformations of her life’s fate because Ms. Santana convinces us from the get-go that this story of her Alice is of course true and thus to be believed without question.

As aspiring short-story writer Billy Cane, Brad Satterwhite delivers the musical’s title song with a refreshing voice bursting with his unbounded optimism of “I’m on my way, bright star, keep shining on me.”  Billy is the All-American guy with an innocent, immediately likeable way about him.  His driving vision to write a story others want to read is one we applaud and have no doubt through his uplifting vocals that he will succeed.

Frankie Mulcahy
Each of these two leads of the parallel stories has a love interest that fully fits the required bill to flutter audience hearts.  Frankie Mulcahy is the hunky and handsome Jimmy Ray Dobbs whose sparks -- when around the younger Alice of 1923 -- literally bounce from his body to hers even as he sings “Whoa Mama” with ebullient vocals that reflect his raised testosterone levels.  In teasing words that differ clearly from his probing hands and readied lips, he brilliantly sings, “You’re pretty as a daisy, smell like a rose, make a man crazy, but it won’t be me.”  Later, he joins Alice with beautifully touching notes of hope and anticipation in “I Can’t Wait” as he feels the butterfly twitches of their baby in her stomach.  When Jimmy Rae discovers the fate of that baby, Frankie Mulcahy’s piercing voice of forlorn cuts to our very core as we in the audience feel in his distraught eyes and in those sung notes Jimmy’s complete resignation and sadness.

Brad Satterwhite & Michelle Skinner
Hometown bookstore clerk, Margo, has high hopes about a certain short-story author on the rise.  As the love-struck, Southern-drawling Margo who tries her best (without always succeeding) to play it cool when around Billy, Michelle Skinner sings in “Asheville” a good-bye to Billy as he first heads to try his luck at writing.  With a wonderful richness in tones that resound deep emotion, her Margo sends waves of mixed hope and resign as she sings repeatedly, “If it don’t work out, oh you can turn around and come back to me.”

The musical’s best-known number, “Sun’s Gonna Shine” kicks off Act Two in a rousing way worthy of any barn-raising party.  Alice’s Mama Murphy (played by Juliet Green) delivers in vocals sparkling and uplifting one of the more inspirational moments of the evening.  To a daughter who is coming off a tragedy and now about to head to university, she gives that kind of heart-felt encouragement that every kid striking it off on their own should receive from a parent: “Something tells me, it’ll be all right ... the sun is gonna shine again.”  (She and the big-voiced cast also give us a number we will definitely remember and hum/sing on the way home.)

Gary Giurbino & Brad Satterwhite
By the end, Daddy Murphy also wins over an audience who in the beginning detests his hard-hearted, religiously justified actions that Michael Mendelsohn carries out with a look and a voice that are as hard as the rocks jutting from a yonder, North Carolina mountain.  Likewise, we despise the villainous acts of Jimmy Ray’s dad, Mayor Dobbs, even while we are left with another of the evening’s ear-worms that Todd Wright gives us by singing a lusty, gusto-filled “A Man’s Gotta Do” (“what a man’s gotta do”).  But as the story’s third father, Daddy Cane and father of Billy, Gary Giurbino leaves a much different impression as he duets with a background banjo to convey in a moving, quivering voice the sad truth to his son, “She’s Gone.”

Nick Kenrick, Brad Satterwhite & Samantha Arden
Nothing short of likeably funny are Samantha Arden and Nick Kenrick as Lucy Grant and Daryl Ames, office associates of Editor Alice, who join Billy for a night of hilarious drinking on the town in “Another Round.”  Lucy in particular brings to a song that is full of too-tired clichés about drinking a voice that vibrates her sense of fun and life as she and Billy join a stage-full of body-twirling dancers jitterbugging the night away at The Shiny Penny. 

Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s Bright Star has some musical numbers that are lyrically bland and mundane, some moments syrupy sweet as molasses, and a progression toward the inevitable happy ending that takes unlikely leaps to get there.  In fact, beyond “Sun’s Gonna Shine,” most of the songs by the next day are forgotten.  What will be long remembered, however, from this Palo Alto Players’ uplifting, smile-producing staging is the sheer energy generated by a banjo-and-guitar-picking score and a director’s skill 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.  Any occasional faults of lyrics that are forever forgotten are quickly forgiven by a superb cast of nineteen headed by the night’s barnstormer of a star, Elizabeth Santana as Alice.

Rating: 5 E

Bright Star continues through September 29, 2019 by Palo Alto Players at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.  Tickets for the Palo Alto Players production are available at or by calling 650-329-0891.

Photo Credit: Scott Lasky

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