There’s a wooden cottage that sits on the stage at Bright Star that appears unassuming but carries the heart of this new musical, which opens Thursday at Broadway’s Cort Theatre, within its walls: a bluegrass band, one playing the sweeping songs that elevate the show above the melodramatic pair of Southern love stories that form its plot.
The production features a book and music by actor-comedian-musician Steve Martin, with music and lyrics from his singer-songwriter collaborator, Edie Brickell. Set in North Carolina in the 1920s and ‘40s, Bright Star follows a young veteran named Billy Cane (A.J. Shivley) returned home from World War II with ambitions of becoming a published author. That dream takes him away from his country home and the childhood friend pining for him (Hannah Elless, in an underwritten role) to the city of Asheville, where he encounters Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack, in her Broadway debut), the warm but businesslike literary editor of the respected Asheville Southern Journal.
Their meeting sparks something in Alice that leads her to reexamine her past, when she was a poor and outspoken girl from another rural town in love with Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Paul Alexander Nolan), a young man from a prominent family and also the son of the local mayor. When Alice becomes pregnant, Jimmy Ray’s father (Michael Mulheren) arranges for her to give birth in secret and then takes the baby away, devastating her and derailing their hopes of marriage and a happy ending together.
The two stories converge with a twist that seems all too convenient and end with a bow that’s perhaps too neat. But Alice remains a mesmerizing character throughout, and Cusack is a revelation in the role, capturing Alice’s youthful exuberance and grown-up steeliness in equal measure. Shivley, Elless, and the rest of the show’s ensemble also do fine work, with comic relief coming via Alice’s two office assistants (played by Jeff Blumenkrantz and Emily Padgett).
Bright Star often verges on corny, particularly in the second act as the plotlines come together. The set is unfussy but suits the story well, particularly as the house containing the band moves around the stage coming in and out of the action as needed. Behind it, a brick wall becomes mountains with the help of a blue sky above.
But it’s Martin and Brickell’s music that’s the brightest star in Bright Star. The bluegrass sounds compliment the show’s setting and era, Americana music with layered harmonies and beautiful use of banjo and fiddle. Not every song is a winner, but there are stirring ballads and toe-tapping numbers throughout that audience members will enjoy.
At the beginning of the show, a grown Alice tells the audience, “If you knew my story, you’d have a good story to tell.” The story’s fine, sure. But the music is much better. B+