San Diego Theater Review: BRIGHT STAR (Old Globe)

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by Tony Frankel on October 8, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


It takes a while to get on board with Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s new musical at The Old Globe. In fact, emotional involvement by intermission is as distant as the Big Dipper. It’s certainly not a complete wash up before the second half, but the unwieldy narrative, archetypal characters, and charming but mostly forgettable and derivative music cloud the view of this Bright Star. Still, there’s freshness and appeal in the Robber Bridegroom-esque storytelling, and director Walter Bobbie (Chicago revival) is at the top of his game, cleverly and swiftly reshuffling his stellar cast and musicians—all of whom beautifully manifest the Appalachian flavor and many locales within the Blue Ridge Mountains circa 1922-1946.

A.J. Shively and Stephen Bogardus in The Old Globe's BRIGHT STAR. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Two stories are told concurrently while time-jumping; we follow two protagonists: a young wannabe writer returning from WWII who is seeking a career, and an editor of a popular literary magazine who is seeking to mend her past. Once the fractured narrative becomes easier to follow in the second act, musical comedy heaven is upon us, and the tidy ending (easily guessed by attentive patrons) will leave you teary-eyed with a spring in your heart. For first-time musical writers, this is nothing short of a miracle.

Kate Loprest, Jeff Hiller, and Carmen Cusack in The Old Globe's BRIGHT STAR. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The tale in Bright Star was developed by Martin and Brickell after they collaborated on their 2013 bluegrass music CD, Love Has Come for You. While Brickell wrote the lyrics, they both composed the music. The 19 songs are refreshingly chockablock with exposition, but the warmhearted simplicity of the melodies lacks the spark of originality. Even with the joyful and authentic backwoods orchestrations by August Eriksmoen, only a few songs are standalone pieces—it’s a workable score given the material’s North Carolina setting, but there is no snap-to-attention innovation in lyrics or music, as was heard in Adam Guettel’s Floyd Collins. And this may not be an issue for some, but the imperfect rhyme scheme (“engaged” with “page”)—while fitting for bluegrass—can inadvertently keep an audience at bay in the theater.

Carmen Cusack (foreground) and cast in The Old Globe's BRIGHT STAR. Photo by Joan Marcus.

That said, some songs fit time, place, story, and character beautifully: The foot-stomping “Firmer Hand/Do Right” establishes the conflicting personalities of a staunchly religious father and his no-nonsense daughter; the haunting country lullaby “My Baby” heightens the emotion of a precarious situation; and the optimistically repetitive strain of “Sun’s Gonna Shine” is pleasingly catchy—even with unmemorable lyrics. Also effective is “Another Round,” which evokes sympathy and laughter as a character drowns her sorrows in alcohol (this number also shows off the seamless integration of Josh Rhodes’ character-driven choreography).

Other songs may have you under a bluegrass spell, but they fail to heighten the stakes of dialogue which never should have been musicalized: A harrowing and compelling moment near the end of Act I (no spoilers here) loses steam when characters repeat what we already know in “Please, Don’t Take Him”; and the evil mayor’s “A Man’s Gotta Do” is too unsophisticated to make us either hate or understand his intentions any more or less.

There’s a slew of interesting characters in Martin’s melodramatic book, many of whom are given equal importance. The core story is there, but the mystery is less fascinating because of some underdeveloped stock characters. Especially problematic is that we follow the past of the female editor throughout the first act, but we already know how she turns out, and it ain’t that bad: she’s successful, beautiful, and practical (can you imagine looking at Scrooge’s past if he had those same qualities?).

Joe Jung and Wayne Duvall in The Old Globe's BRIGHT STAR. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Even with its “Boy-Loses-Girl, Boy-Gets-Girl” constraints, there’s a very workable musical here; especially gratifying is Martin’s grounded humor, which veers from the wacky comedy we associate with him. But the show’s origins elucidate how these invigorating songsmiths naïvely got in their own way: they began working on songs together before a libretto was in place. Martin said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, “We didn’t really have a story, which made it difficult. I would never attempt this again without a clear story in mind first.” Now that they have a story, the show’s feelings and emotions should be less obvious—and I think Bobbie is up to the task.

Hannah Elless in The Old Globe's BRIGHT STAR. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Musical Director and Vocal Arranger Rob Berman has the sound scheme down pat (Peter Asher is the musical supervisor), and Nevin Steinberg’s crisp sound design is masterful. A rolling cabin contains some of the band members (violin, banjo, Jew’s harp, et al), who—along with Japhy Weideman’s lights—are incorporated into Eugene Lee’s effectively morphing set, which has pieces fly in and out via both wires and actors. Jane Greenwood’s costumes veer from stereotype (the evil mayor is dressed in a suit of crinkled, white linen, not a starched black getup). Equally impressive are the smart fashions which look as though they were bought from a Sears and Roebuck catalogue and worn over and over again.

The cast of The Old Globe's BRIGHT STAR. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The cast of Broadway heavyweights admirably veer from caricature, eschewing their legit vibrato voices for Carter Family-style bluegrass, sometimes hitting a note just slightly flat and sliding up to true pitch. As the editor Alice Murphy, Carmen Cusack is captivating playing the small town country girl who boldly makes her way in the big city of Ashville. Wayne Alan Wilcox is charming as her love interest, Jimmy Ray Dobbs, but the character is a bit too spineless to validate Alice’s attraction to him.

Wayne Alan Wilcox and Carmen Cusack in The Old Globe's BRIGHT STAR - Photo by Joan Marcus.

Kate Loprest and Jeff Hiller offer comic relief as Alice’s employees Lucy Grant and Daryl Ames—although she could stand to be more of an Eve Arden wisecracker, and I didn’t buy her alluding to his being gay—Ashville may be ground zero for the gay community in the Deep South now, but 1944? Fortunately, Martin is on the right track, but Daryl exemplifies how richer character complexity would benefit the show.

Another great character is Alice’s sister, Dora, convincingly played by Libby Winters; no matter how hard she tries, she consistently makes mistakes that will alter her family’s destiny. The characters of Mama and Daddy are as paper-thin as their names; the father serves more plot purpose than the mother, but Patti Cohenour and Stephen Lee Anderson are nonetheless persuasive.

Wayne Alan Wilcox and Carmen Cusack in The Old Globe's BRIGHT STAR. Photo by Joan Marcus.

A.J. Shively is certainly attractive as the WWII vet, Billy Cane, and Hannah Elless is lovely as Margo, the girl he left behind, but these characters still lack distinction, and Margo positively needs more backstory. The great Stephen Bogardus is somewhat wasted as Billy’s father, Daddy Cane (why don’t the parents have first names?). Wayne Duvall pulls out the stops as the manipulative and unscrupulous Mayor Josiah Dobbs, who may have been assigned a name, but equally needs more backstory; still, we need this character, and it’s a good sign that Duvall was roundly booed at curtain call. Allison Briner, Max Chernin, Leah Horowitz, Joe Jung, Ashley Robinson, Sarah Jane Shanks, and Scott Wakefield round out the estimable company.

It’s invigorating after so many dud musicals at The Old Globe (Some Lovers, The Last Goodbye, Dog and Pony, A Room with a View) that one comes along teeming with promise. With the proper fixins, I see a very Bright Star on the horizon.

Scott Wakefield, Joe Jung and Carmen Cusack in The Old Globe's BRIGHT STAR. Photo by Joan Marcus.

photos by Joan Marcus

Bright Star
Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage
The Old Globe in Balboa Park
Tues & Wed at 7:00; Thurs & Fri at 8:00;
Sat at 2:00 and 8:00; Sun at 2:00 and 7:00
scheduled to end on November 2, 2014
for tickets, call 619.234-5623 or visit

{ 1 comment }

Michael M.Landman-Karny October 8, 2014 at 7:25 pm

Very incisive review. I would like to add that there are evidently no black people in North Carolina…but then again, adding a black character (and perhaps the racism of the period) would overtax an already overstuffed book…

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