Steve Martin and Edie Brickell Bring Love Home With Bright Star

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The new Broadway show Bright Star is a redemptive story of love lost and love found, told through rousing bluegrass songs. Happily, it managed to push every button for this hardcore musical theater–phobe, offering fun yet not “show-y” tunes, pacing that held my attention, and an overall authenticity that lent purpose to the exciting choreography and truth to the evening’s big emotions. But primarily I wanted to see what the odd pairing of its famous cowriters—Renaissance man comedian Steve Martin and 1980s alternative folk-rock star Edie Brickell—would come up with.

Bright Star bounces back and forth between 1945 and 1923, with its heroine, Alice Murphy, in nearly every scene. A successful literary editor living in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Alice sees promise in an aspiring writer who has recently returned from service in WWII. The soldier, Billy Cane (played by A.J. Shively), prompts a trip through Alice’s painful memories of a traumatic event from 22 years earlier.

Carmen Cusack is absolutely convincing as Alice in both eras, an anchor of authenticity who kept me interested despite the show’s incredulities. For example, Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Paul Alexander Nolan), Alice’s love in 1923, cancels a trip to visit her because of something terrible his father has done in his name. Jimmy Ray’s song “Heartbreaker” tearfully acknowledges this betrayal, but his resignation to the situation his father created seems inconsistent with his earlier displays of love, pride and resourcefulness. Similarly, the musical’s big emotional reveal is immediately followed by some comical storytelling that includes an unsuccessful nighttime frog hunt. For me, the humor sucked the force out of this climax, but other viewers may appreciate the respite as an opportunity to let Bright Star’s full import sink in.

BrightStar3In the end, incongruities like these don’t matter. Watch Alice. Listen to her story. Hers is the true tale of Bright Star. Significantly, the show’s men—fathers, lovers, sons—are the ones who fail her. Because of their collective incompetence, she begins the show skeptical and distrustful, her youthful tragedy a direct result of their stupidity. “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do,” sings Jimmy Ray’s business-minded dad.

The knowledge that frees Alice comes via her own efforts, and the men remain ignorant until she discovers the truth, providing the answer to a riddle that only she ever asked. While the young, proud Jimmy Ray accepts the finality of his father’s actions, Alice’s story teaches us that the past—especially the idea of home—always remains open. Indeed, as Alice encourages her protégé, Billy, to draw upon his upbringing to brighten and improve his writing, she finds her own truth on a visit to his childhood home.

Bright Star is based on Martin and Brickell’s 2013 bluegrass album, Love Has Come for You, for which Brickell sang and Martin wrote the music, sang and played five-string banjo, his longtime preferred instrument. Additional collaborations followed: 2014’s Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers Featuring Edie Brickell Live and the 2015 studio album So Familiar. Already familiar with Love Has Come for You, I could see where the show’s themes originated. The cliffhanger that closes Act 1, for example, comes straight from the track “Sarah Jane and the Iron Mountain Baby.” (I won’t give it away, but if you listen to this tune before seeing the show, you’ll be better able to guess the dramatic ending than the person sitting next to you.) Martin and Brickell opted to leave this song out of Bright Star, but they lifted others more or less directly from the album, including the show’s title song, the hopeful “Sun Is Gonna Shine” and “When You Get to Asheville.”

BrightStar2The many contributors on the record—including exciting young jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding and the Watkins siblings from neo-bluegrass band Nickel Creek—don’t distract from the songs’ simplicity and directness. While the show amps up the drama, it largely stays true to the album’s intimate, front-porch feel. And the centrality of performance itself is realized in a fixture of Bright Star’s set: a wooden house frame that holds five of the show’s 10 musicians. The actors occasionally interact with them, moving through the structure while singing, but, more important, the set also serves as the childhood homes of two main characters, uniting them in music as they’re ultimately united in the plot.

With its down-home aesthetic, this always-occupied, always-alive house is the perfect symbol for Bright Star’s authentic appeal. Even the show’s ending, which sets up a well-worn musical theater trope, doesn’t detract from the effect. Neighbors to my left and right in the audience had tears in their eyes, while I momentarily lost my skepticism and distaste for musicals. Thanks, Steve and Edie!

Photos by Nick Stokes

Tickets are on sale for Bright Star at New York’s Cort Theatre for shows through October 9.

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