Last December, I wrote here about a new musical, Bright Star, that had book, music and lyrics written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell. It got some very positive reviews, but though generally favorable, overall the notices were mixed and it only ran for 109 performances. It did get nominated for Best Musical, though, and its star Carmen Cusack was nominated as Best Actress. There was a lot of affection for the show, and the cast reunited to put on a concert reading of the musical -- which I posted here -- but that seemed to be the end of the line.
However, it's turned out not to be. Bright Star was not only remounted, but with half a dozen members of the Broadway production, including its star Tony-nominated Carmen Cusack and all the main leads, and a tour was set up for the show which began here in Los Angeles, at the Ahamanson Theatre. This is pretty uncommon for a show that was unsuccessful on Broadway. But I'm guessing there was a sense that it not only should, but importantly could have an afterlife around the country.
I went to see the show yesterday. And that sense is well-earned. Though not without some flaws, I thought the musical was quite wonderful. And so did the sold-out audience which was enthusiastic throughout. I have to admit, I am partial to "folk musicals" which this is -- along the lines of The Robber Bridegroom, Quilters, The Old Man and the Old Moon and (though it's a larger-scale show) Big River. It has what is best-described as a bluegrass score, though that's not completely accurate. What's a treat, as well, is the flowing staging which is almost part-choreography, including a frame house that glides around the stage as needed, and simple settings that roll in and around.
Carmen Cusack is a complete joy, and worth seeing her repeat her starring role. And all the cast (especially those coming from the Broadway production) are terrific. The story is based on a true event that Edie Brickell found in a newspaper which she and Martin fashioned a story around, imagining what might have come before -- and after. The show is touching, romantic, funny, sad, tragic in parts, and ultimately endearing. Being mostly in a bluegrass style (though not all), there's somewhat a bit of sameness to the music, but it's so affectionate and evocative and correct for fitting its moments -- and ranges from joyful to tender to heart-break -- that it's never static. It's also a style of music I happen to like a lot (and in fact, sort of play the banjo...or did, not for years), so it was all the more appealing to me. The lyrics aren't especially rich, though there's an involving directness and charm to them that tells the story so well. Overall, the score adds to the sense of flow that permeates the show, with a full 20 songs interwoven throughout.
One criticism I remember from the reviews is that the story jumps around in time, mostly between 1943 and 20 years earlier, though also with a more distant framing, and some critics had difficulty with that. It thoroughly surprises me because, after the first couple of jumps, once you get what's going on I found the shifts completely easy to follow. In fact, the moving back-and-forth in time (one handled, for example, when the tightly-prim main character begins to sing about how she used to be a carefree young girl and moves across the stage, changing her clothes and hair style with each step until we're 20 years earlier at a dance) is one of the aspects of the show that keeps it so fluid.
If you live in Los Angeles, consider seeing it while it's still here -- not just for the show (which is quite good) -- but because you get this cast, so many of the originals. And since it will be touring, if it comes to your city, keep an eye out for it.
The show began life at the Old Globe in San Diego. I had no idea, so I missed it there. Based on videos of that production, it's clear that they changed the structure of the show slightly, so I'm okay with having waited to see it in its final form. But here's a very good eight-minute montage of several songs from that production. My one quibble is there isn't a great deal of Carmen Cusack in the video, though she's featured somewhat in the first two numbers -- and while not an ensemble show, it's close to that and many of the leads get their moments here. Also, the actor who sings the title song in this world premiere production, A.J. Shively, playing an aspiring writer, stayed with the show to Broadway and is still with it here in Los Angeles.
And here's a bonus.
Not included in the above montage is the standout, "11 o'clock" show-stopping number sung by Carmen Cusack, "At Long Last." But here it is from that concert reading I mentioned. It helps to put it in slight perspective, though not wanting to give too much away in case you do see the show. The character, 'Alice Murphy,' has lived with a hole in her heart for much of her life. Yet near the end of the story, she finally gets a powerfully-emotional sense of closure and a deep release from a pain she's long been living with inside her. It's an absolutely terrific number. And as you'll hear, not a moment of bluegrass, for those of you concerned about such things...
(One thing to note: when she breaks into a little dance during the wild applause -- which lasts almost a full minute -- that's not her being hammy for the audience, that's actually part of the staging for her character in the show.)
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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