Carmen Cusack was rightly nominated for a Tony award for her role as Alice Murphy in Steve Martin’s and Edie Brickell’s blue grass musical “Bright Star.” The show, which received otherwise lukewarm reviews and closed quickly, comes to the Curran in San Francisco from Los Angeles, at the start of a national tour.
Cusack is indeed spectacularly good, and the rest of the cast is more than capable. Steve Martin is never less than competent as playwright and musician, and “Bright Star” is far from a failure. But it is also far from an unqualified success.
I love blue grass music but, for the most part, this score is merely serviceable. The story had great potential, but was compromised, perhaps for commercial purposes. While the first act has depth and evokes some fine southern writing (one thinks first of Flannery O’Connor), the second act went all topsy turvy. Blue grass, Flannery O’Connor, Gilbert & Sullivan, a dollop of Oscar Wilde, and a sprinkling of jokes in the style of a TV sit-com make for a mushy mishmash.
The story is set in rural North Carolina and the relative metropolis of Asheville, over a span of 22 years. It follows the life trajectories of a man and a woman, a generation apart. The young Billy Cone (charmingly played by A. J. Shiveley) arrives in Asheville to present his short stories to the middle aged Alice Murphy (Tony nominee Cusack), editor of a literary journal.
The stories of their lives are chock full of southern backwoods stereotypes and blue grass music. Eventually, the plot takes a dive into Southern Gothic territory, wallowing in guilt and secrets, and shocking plot twists that challenge our credulity, to put it mildly. Eventually, the threads that connect these two people are revealed and a happy ending is achieved by the survivors of the storm.
The plot swings like a broken gate between absurdity and cliche, but the performances are uniformly charming, the music entertaining and well performed, and the jokes delivered for maximum laughter. Speaking of that, Jeff Blumenkrantz as a supporting character, Daryl Ames, wields a punch line like a swinging axe and never misses a cut.
Overall, this somewhat silly exercise is a hot mess that fails to achieve much substance, but takes us on a charming ride nonetheless.
“Bright Star” continues at the Curran Theatre through December 17th. For further information, click here.
Rating: **** (for an explanation of Theatrestorm’s rating scale, click here.)
“Bright Star,” Book by Steve Martin, Music and Story by Edie Brickell, Lyrics by Edie Brickell, produced by The Old Globe. Director: Walter Bobbie. Choreography: Josh Rhodes. Music Direction: P. Jason Yarcho. Scenic Design: Eugene Lee. Costume Design: Jane Greenwood. Lighting Design: Japhy Weideman. Sound Design: Nevin Steinberg.
Alice Murphy: Carmen Cusack. Daddy Murphy: Stephen Lee Anderson. Daddy Cane: David Atkinson. Mayor Josiah Dobbs: Jeff Austin. Margo Crawford: Maddie Shea Baldwin. Daryl Ames: Jeff Blumenktrantz. Mama Murphy: Allison Briner-Dardenne. Jimmy Ray Dobbs: Patrick Cummings. Lucy Grant: Kaitlyn Davidson.Billy Cane: A. J. Shiveley. Edna: Audrey Cardwell. Max: Max Chernin.County Clerk: Robin De Lano. Dr. Nordquist: David Kirk Grant. Stanford Adams: Kevin McMahon. Florence: Alessa Neeck. Ensemble: Devin Archer, Audrey Cardwell, Max Chernin, Robin De Lano, David Kirk Grant, Kevin McMahon, Alessa Neeck, Michael Starr.