Love, Loss and Local Color Make a Bluegrass Musical
'Bright Star' Is Steve Martin and Edie Brickell's New Show
SAN DIEGO -- Darkness and light are blended in even proportions in "Bright Star," a sepia-toned new musical by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell making its premiere at the Old Globe theater here. The characters in this musically vibrant if overstuffed show, set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina during two separate decades of the 20th century, endure hardship, heartache and almost melodramatic loss. But, as the title suggests, their eyes remain fixed not on the black canopy of night but on the beacons of hope that pierce it. A telling song from the second act reminds us that no matter how gray the future seems, the "sun is gonna shine again."
The shining achievement of the musical is its winsome country and bluegrass score, with music by Mr. Martin and Ms. Brickell, and lyrics by Ms. Brickell. The complicated plot, divided between two love stories that turn out to have an unusual connection, threatens to get a little too diffuse and unravel like a ball of yarn rolling off a knitter's lap. But the songs -- yearning ballads and square-dance romps rich with fiddle, piano and banjo, beautifully played by a nine-person band -- provide a buoyancy that keeps the momentum from stalling.
Mr. Martin, by the way, is indeed the Steve Martin who began his career as a banjo-strumming standup comic in the 1970s. He has since become one of the most fascinating polymaths in American culture as actor, novelist and noted art collector. But he never put down that instrument. Mr. Martin has won a Grammy for best bluegrass recording, and established a bluegrass and banjo prize in his name. Last year he collaborated with Ms. Brickell -- the retro-folk singer who had a pop hit back in 1986 with "What I Am" -- on a collection of songs called "Love Has Come for You." That led to a desire to create a musical, and "Bright Star" is the result, although initial plans to use music from that album were largely abandoned, with only two songs remaining.
Together they fashioned the original story, and Mr. Martin wrote the book. The beaming title tune sets a hopeful tone. World War II has ended, and the boys are coming home. Among them is Billy Cane (the winning, rich-voiced A. J. Shively), whose eagerness to see his hometown again receives a jolt when he learns from his father (Stephen Bogardus) that his beloved mother has died. She had encouraged his ambitions to become a writer, and he has soon fixed his desire on being published in the region's most respected magazine, The Asheville Southern Journal.
In Asheville we meet the editor, the tart but warm Alice Murphy (a wonderful Carmen Cusack), the show's other principal character. A 38-year-old single woman, she oversees two assistants, the snarky Daryl Ames (Jeff Hiller), who's also (anachronistically?) obviously gay, and the wisecracking, sexy Lucy Grant (Kate Loprest). The chipper atmosphere of this office is established in one of the show's weaker songs. ("How I love my wonderful career," Alice trills. "I'm so engaged, such a pleasant working atmosphere." Show us, don't tell us, Alice.) We are soon swept back to Alice's youth, where much of the drama takes place. Some 22 years earlier, she was an outspoken small-town lass from a farming family who fell in love with Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Wayne Alan Wilcox), the scion of the town's leading family and the son of the mayor, Josiah Dobbs (Wayne Duvall, exuding chicken-fried menace from every pore). Trouble comes when Alice gets pregnant and Josiah hatches a plan to separate the two, despite Jimmy Ray and Alice's plan to marry.
When we pick up the story again in the 1940s, Billy moves to Asheville and becomes a protégé of Alice, leaving behind his own true love, Margo Crawford (Hannah Elless), an underdeveloped character who pines for him in one of the show's most beautiful ballads, "Asheville" (a retooled song from the album).
Here's the song "Asheville" is based on, "When You Get to Asheville:"
By: Carol Motsinger
The write-up also celebrates Asheville's "rich literary tradition" that "continues today," citing Asheville native Thomas Wolfe, O. Henry, who married into a prominent Asheville family and is buried in Riverside Cemetery, poet Carl Sandburg who worked and lived 25 miles outside of town in Flat Rock, as well as the period of time F. Scott Fitzgerald spent at the Grove Park Inn in the 1930s.
The play bill also includes images of Pack Square Park in the 1930s.
"Bright Star" features music seeped in Appalachian bluegrass and folk traditions. Martin began his career as a banjo-playing stand-up comic in the 1970s. Today, Martin is celebrated as a traditional bluegrass musician.
He lives in Brevard and has played alongside Grammy-winning local artists Steep Canyon Rangers.