A Dose of Old Southern Charm in ‘Bright Star’

If, as Bright Star supporting character Lucy puts it, the real key to being a good writer is feeling sorry for yourself and drinking vodka, it’s possible that this musical’s writers could’ve used another cocktail or two in the process of this show’s creation. Though said writers are actually a pretty famous pair, consisting of Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin) and singer-songwriter Edie Brickell of the New Bohemians, the show ran only a short few months on Broadway in 2016. And, in a sense, it isn’t hard to see why it didn’t quite catch on, though there are plenty of bright spots in this sentimental down-home musical, and especially in Actors’ Playhouse’s megawatt-worthy production. 

First off, there’s the sheer star power of leading lady Kimberly Doreen Burns, who plays Alice Murphy, a hardass editor who eventually proves herself to be the true protagonist of this two-pronged story. But before we meet her, we meet young soldier Billy Cane, as he’s coming home from World War II to the small North Carolina town of Hayes Creek. A few scenes later, he heads off again to pursue his literary ambitions at the Asheville Southern Journal, which is where his story intersects with the then middle-aged Alice’s; but the far more compelling thread emerges when we flash back to her own adolescence. 

Far too smart and too wild to fit or be satisfied in her own backwards NC hometown of Zebulon, she finds a kindred spirit in the equally restless son-of-the-mayor Jimmy Ray. The two young lovers let passion take hold, and Alice soon finds herself with child. But the fate of the happy family in the making is forever altered when Jimmy’s disapproving father steps in to take control of that child’s fate in order to prevent the ruination of his son’s reputation. 

To get any more specific than that would likely be to spoil the finale of the show’s first act, one of just a few truly surprising moments in an otherwise predictable script. Act 2 focuses on the aftermath of the aforementioned events for Alice and Jimmy, as well as on Billy’s continual efforts to get one of his short stories past Alice’s critical eye. We also track Billy’s shifting relationship with Margo, a childhood friend of his whose defining character trait seems to be that she is obviously besotted with her old pal.

Not that any of the other characters are terribly more fleshed out, with Billy’s ‘dreams’ coming off as painfully generic. Meanwhile, the plot also moves in melodramatic broad strokes that undercut any real sense of investment in the characters. Though I eventually did find myself getting absorbed as the intensity of the storyline ratcheted, the meandering narrative was quite slow in establishing its true stakes. 

Consequently, I found myself drifting underwhelmed through most of Act 1, only to be occasionally stunned to attention by the vocal talents of some cast member or other. Aside from the aforementioned Burns, Alex Jorth, Teddy Warren, and Alexandra Van Hasselt hold their own as the rest of the show’s romantic leads, while Barry Tarallo excels in the character role of Jimmy’s wicked father. Charity Van Tassel also brought a notable spark to Billy’s sultry co-worker Lucy and Conor Walton to Alice’s other underling, the sarcastic and subtly flamboyant Daryl. This pair get some of the wittier one-liners of the evening, making for a few memorable laugh-out-loud moments amidst the otherwise too self-serious storytelling.

In general, the show’s catchy bluegrass-inspired score consistently outshone and overshadowed the less extraordinary script. But tuneful and indeed beautiful as many songs from that score are, I couldn’t help but notice that quite a few did next to nothing to further the plot, with some, like “Firm Hand” and “Heartbreaker”, taking a good few minutes to enumerate a sentiment or two that probably could have been expressed in a mere sentence.

In others, even as the music soared, I found myself distracted by the hackneyed banality of the lyrics, such as by the awkward syllogism of lines like “a man’s gotta do, what a man’s gotta do” or “if you knew my story you’d have a good story to tell.”

However, some numbers, like Alice and Jimmy’s speculative “I Can’t Wait,” achieved a genuinely haunting quality. Others, like the flirty “Whoa, Mama” and rollicking ode to intoxication “Another Round,” were just a heck of a good time, further enhanced by energetic country-inspired choreography by Sarah Crane. 

Along with costumes by Ellis Tillman and scenic design by Brandon Newton, the music and dancing of the show also effectively invokes the charming Southern atmosphere of the setting, which goes a long way towards creating a jovial, absorbing mood that helps us to forget and forgive the show’s lack of sophistication and narrative contrivances. And once you doand get swept up into the sweeping fable of a tale that is the characters’ journeyyou’d be hard-pressed not to find yourself moved by its redemptive, uplifting conclusion. You have until this April 16th to see how brightly this production shines at Actors’ Playhouse yourself!

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