Chicago Theater Review: BRIGHT STAR (BoHo Theatre at Greenhouse Theater Center)

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by Lawrence Bommer on March 24, 2019

in Theater-Chicago


You can savor heart and hope in every scene in Bright Star, BoHo Theatre’s new triumph in their upstairs home at the Greenhouse Theater Center. Nostalgic without escapism and redemptive with utterly earned emotions, this 2014 bluegrass musical by phenoms Steve Martin and Edie Brickell spins an irresistible tale. It’s full of unforced goodness and rewarded risk-taking, and steeped in Southern charm and down-home decency.

Here’s a surefire guarantee: These 18 songs, marinating in country comfort (there’s even a square dance) and ’40s’ fun (Jitterbugs and Lindy Hops), will win you from the first note to the last reprise.

Beautifully shaped by director/choreographer Ericka Mac and music director Julie B. Nichols, it spins a story inspired by real events. We encounter a marvelous to miraculous partnership between two unlikely benefactors. The time is 1945-6 (with flashbacks to 1923), the place North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, and the protagonist is Billy Cane (Jeff Pierpont, eager for everything), an ex-soldier who wrote for Stars and Stripes. With his “curious love of words” like “propinquity,” Billy hopes for the peacetime publication of vignettes about the hill folks of “Hicksville” that he’s learned to like.

Reuniting in the hamlet of Hayes Creek with his childhood chum — and soon sweetheart — Margo Crawford (enchanting Kiersten Frumkin), Billy discovers that his mom has died (“She’s Gone”). Happily, Daddy Cane (Peter Robel) has love to spare for his healing son.

Billy’s postwar life soon gets a major makeover: Taking a chance on an unfledged but promising chronicler is no-nonsense Alice Murphy (Missy Wise, astonishing in speech and song). She’s the editor of the progressive Asheville Southern Journal, a warm home to such burgeoning regional talents as Carson McCullers and Eudora Welty. This is the “bright star” that will give Billy the audience his talent requires.

Despite the somewhat snobbish resistance of the journal’s colorful employees, vivacious Lucy Grant (period-perfect Rachel Whyte) and barely closeted Darryl Ames (sardonic Dwayne Everett), Billy wins them over — and gets a much-appreciated windfall of a $10 check — by eloquently mining his memories in tales that touch.

But there’s a back story in this show: It ultimately presents the power of forgiveness to manage miracles. We’re taken back 23 years to Zebulon, North Carolina when a 16-year-old Alice has a once-and-future liaison with the mayor’s son Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Josiah Robinson, growing and wising up). Both sets of parents, especially Mayor Josiah (a stern Scott Danielson), have problems with their puppy love (“Whoa, Mama” and “Firmer Hand”), even more so when Alice gives birth to a possibly bastard boy. With “A Man’s Gotta Do,” Jimmy’s dad teaches him all the wrong reasons to be one.

Alice is ecstatic to be a mom (“I Can’t Wait”) and Jimmy Ray shares her joy (“What Could Be Better”). But a disapproving dad halts their happiness — and the legend of the “Iron Mountain Baby,” placed in a valise and cast from a train, is born. It will take a second act filled with Dickensian surprises to sort out this sorrow from 1923.

Meanwhile, in 1945 Margo misses Billy (“Sun’s Gonna Shine”) but holds hard for better days. Alice’s visit to the Ozarks to discover Billy’s roots proves pivotal. Wonderful reconciliations follow, served up in splendid songs (“I Had a Vision” and “Always Will”). A late-blooming choral ballad (“So Familiar/At Long Last”) feels like a blessing in notes.

Played against Lauren M. Nichols’ latticework barn-door background, BoHo’s 150-minute rouser testifies to a bedrock truth we learn halfway through: The truth casts shadows, secrets that must be shared in order to make things right. Another truth: The 15-member ensemble and seven-strong band make musical magic over and over. Everyone in this good-time enterprise comes out golden.

photos by Cody Jolly Photography (1-10) and Katie Stanley (11-13)

Bright Star
BoHo Theatre
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N Lincoln Ave.
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 2
ends on May 5, 2019
for tickets, call 773.975.8150 or visit BoHo Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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