[My play report on the current Broadway première of Bright Star, the initial musical theater venture of comedian-musician-author Steve Martin and singer-songwriter Edie Brickell, is considerably longer than my usual reports. The extra length—nearly half the post—is attributable to the review survey I always include at the end. Bright Star attracted so much press attention when it came to New York City, more outlets covered it than I commonly find on the ’Net. Rather than reduce the selection or trim the quotations, I decided to let the reporting of the critical reception exceed my self-imposed maximum length. (I have, though, omitted the brief bios of the playwrights that I normally include when I write a report like this on a play composed by a writer I haven’t written about before. Curious readers will have to look the artists up on their own this time.) Though I don’t endorse it, ROTters may chose to stop after my performance evaluation. I recommend you stay with the report, however, and see what the published reviewers had to say about this attention-grabbing musical. ~Rick]
I probably should admit a few things before launching into my report on the new Broadway musical Bright Star. You should know a little about where I’m coming from in this instance. First, I’ve never been a big fan of Steve Martin—not his stand-up routines in the ’60s, nor his “wild-and-crazy” appearances on Saturday Night Live in the ’70s, nor his movies in the ’80s (I could tolerate Roxanne, but that was probably because he cribbed from Edmond Rostand), nor his earlier attempts at playwriting (I thought very little of The Underpants), nor his appearances on talk shows like Letterman and Colbert.
Second, I don’t really like banjo music. I can take it in small doses, but a whole evening of it drives me bananas. Music that goes plinkety-plink turns me off—and what else does a banjo do but plink?
Given number two, it probably won’t surprise anyone when I add that, third, I don’t care for bluegrass music. I don’t like country music in general, but bluegrass leaves me ice cold. I went to college in the South and spent the first months of my military service in that region, but I never acquired a taste for this music even though it was often hard to find anything else on the radio. (We listened to the radio back then. It was a thing.)
Finally, one thing that I really dislike is to feel my emotions have been deliberately manipulated. If someone wants to tell a story which along the way generates an emotional response, whether fright, sadness, laughter, or wonder, that’s terrific. That’s the way it’s supposed to happen. But when I feel that the storyteller has set out from the very start to pluck my heart strings just to show he can do it, I get pissed. (I do make an exception for horror stories—that’s the function of that genre.)
So, now you have all my pertinent biases.
Now, I also need to confess something else. In a departure from my customary practice, I read some of the reviews of Bright Star before starting to write this report (but after I’d seen the show). Having read Christopher Isherwood’s New York Times review, which comes to my home, I wondered if other reviewers had the same high opinion of this musical that he did. I won’t reveal now what I found—I’ll be doing the usual review round-up at the end of the report—but readers may find that my sneak preview has informed, not my opinion of the performance, but my reportage. Can’t be helped, I guess: I can’t un-know what I now know.
Let’s go back to my habitual starting point. Diana, my regular theater companion, called me a few months back with some performances she thought she might like to see. We had started going to shows together some years ago when Diana asked me to be her sort of Baedeker for theater, particularly the less prominent performances and companies, because I knew more about the New York theater scene than she did. But that was years ago, and all I do now is occasionally point out productions she should consider and offer an opinion on ones she brings to my attention. Bright Star was one of the latter, and I expressed some doubts about it, but agreed to give it a try for the novelty of the play (bluegrass music on Broadway and Martin’s maiden voyage on the Great White Way) and because it had been a long time since I’d gone to a Broadway production of an original play (as opposed to a revival like On the Town, on which I reported on 18 July 2015, or an adaptation like An American in Paris, reported on 2 August 2016). So I didn’t press my reservations. (Just to be clear: the Broadway musical Bright Star is in no way related to the French-British-Australian film about poet John Keats and his muse Fanny Brawne that was released in 2009 under the same title.) Diana booked seats for Bright Star at the Cort Theatre on West 48th Street for Friday evening, 1 April. (That’s right: April Fool’s Day—which turned out to be inauspicious later in the evening! But I’ll get to that.)
Bright Star, which was workshopped at Vassar & New York Stage and Film’s Powerhouse Theater on the Vassar College campus in Poughkeepsie, New York, from 12 to 14 July 2013, had its world première at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego from 13 September to 2 November 2014 with the same creative and design team that took it to New York City and mostly the same leading performers. (There was also a staged reading in New York City after the Vassar workshop.) The performance text was reworked following the San Diego première: some characters were dropped; some songs were removed and others, such as the new opening number (“If You Knew My Story”), added; and the book was adjusted to accommodate these changes. The show reopened for what was considered its pre-Broadway try-out at the Eisenhower Theater of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., 2 December 2015 to 10 January 2016; the final Broadway cast was put together for the Washington production. The transfer to Broadway began with previews of the two-hour-and-twenty-minute show at the Cort on 25 February and the new musical opened on 24 March for an open-ended run.
As I said, this is the first entirely original musical play to come to Broadway in a very long time. (Even Hamilton is based on a book.) The story was conceived by Steve Martin and his composing partner Edie Brickell. The pair met through Brickell’s husband of over 20 years, singer-songwriter Paul Simon (who recently wrote music for John Patrick Shanley’s Prodigal Son, on which I reported on 28 February, and made his own Broadway attempt in 1998 with The Capeman), and first collaborated in 2013 on their début album of bluegrass music, Love Has Come For You. According to Brickell, a tune Martin had written for the recording reminded her of a train. This prompted her to research actual southern trains, and she came across one called Iron Mountain (actually the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railway line), connected to which, she discovered, was a newspaper story, a true account from 1902 about a man named William Helms (1835-1917), his wife Sarah Jane Helms (1850-1925), and a child called William Moses Gould Helms (1902-53). (The tale has become known as The Iron Mountain Baby and gave birth to a folk song, “The Ballad of the Iron Mountain Baby,” written by Rev. J. T. Barton in 1902 or ’03.) Brickell has recounted the story of the play’s origin numerous times, most recently on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on 15 March; It was also related in a feature in the “Arts & Leisure” section of the New York Times of 20 March and on CBS News’s Sunday Morning on the same date.
The composing team, dubbed Steve and Edie (an allusion to the husband-and-wife singing duo Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé, popular in the 1950s and ’60s when they were billed as Steve and Eydie), wrote the story that became the plot of Bright Star. Martin and Brickell composed a bluegrass-infused score for the play; Martin, an avid and accomplished banjo-player since his teens, wrote the music (which he calls the “tunes”) and the book, Brickell the lyrics (except for two songs for which she wrote both music and lyrics).
The Southern Gothic story Martin and Brickell wrote and the plot of Bright Star differ almost entirely from the legend of the Iron Mountain Baby. Just as Peter Shaffer did with the news story he read about a boy who blinded six horses from which he built his 1973 play Equus, Martin and Brickell invented all but the central fact of a baby thrown from a train. None of the musical’s characters bear the names of the real people in the story and the play is set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina in 1923 and 1945, not Washington County, Missouri, in 1902. So we’ll leave the legend behind now and take up the Martin-Brickell narrative as the play recounts it.
In the small town of Hayes Creek, North Carolina, a 23-year-old soldier, Billy Crane (A. J. Shively), is just returning home from World War II. He arrives at the cabin where he grew up to find his father (Stephen Bogardus) waiting to greet him and his childhood friend, Margo Crawford (Hannah Elless), paying a call. Margo, who runs the town bookstore, has brought Daddy Cane a book—an obvious excuse to be there when Billy arrives because she has long harbored a crush on him. Billy asks after his mother, and Daddy Cane has a hard time telling his son that one night, she just passed away (“She’s Gone”); Daddy Cane takes his son to see her grave near the cabin.
There, addressing his beloved mother who had instilled in her son a love of reading and words, Billy sings the title song, “Bright Star,” and proclaims his intention of being a writer like Thomas Wolfe or William Faulkner. While overseas, he’d been sending his stories home to Margo who’d encouraged him—and even retyped all his manuscripts on good paper so he could submit them for publication when he was ready. So caught up in his hopeful future, Billy has no idea how hung up on him Margo is; she’s just a good friend and confidante in his eyes. He tells her he’s not going to send his stories to Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack), the renowned and famously acerbic editor of the Asheville Southern Journal, a prestigious literary journal that resembles Tennessee’s Sewanee Review. He’s going to travel to Asheville himself and deliver the typescripts by hand and camp outside the journal’s offices until he’s published!
In Asheville, we meet Alice, a dour 38-year-old spinster, complete with eyeglasses and hair bun, and her assistants Lucy (Emily Padgett) and Daryl (Jeff Blumenkrantz), who admire her, fear her, and look out for her, all at the same time. In a flashback to 1923 in Zebulon, another small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains (“Way Back in the Day,” one of the songs Brickell wrote on her own), we learn that Alice was an irrepressible and inquisitive 16-year-old who delights in shocking her parents (Stephen Lee Anderson and Dee Hoty) with her modern ways, as they preach the Bible to her to no avail. We also find that she likes to tease 18-year-old Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Paul Alexander Nolan), who finds excuses to come out to the Murphy cabin.
Jimmy Ray’s the scion of the rich family in town and the son of Mayor Josiah Dobbs (Michael Mulheren), who’d rather he paid greater attention to the more eligible daughters of North Carolina’s prominent and connected families. (If you’ve read any of the press on Bright Star or the reviews of the out-of-town productions, you know what’s coming. A warning: I’m going to include some spoilers if you don’t already know what’s ahead. The foreshadowing is so obvious, however, that I contend that Martin and Brickell’s intended shocks are really no surprises.) The relationship between Jimmy Ray and his father is established when the boy says he’s filling out an application for the University of North Carolina because he wants to learn more about the world than he can in Zebulon—and the Mayor quashes his son’s desires by telling him he can learn everything he needs to know to run the family business right at his father’s side, as the Mayor did from his father. (Have you heard this gambit before? I can think of at least one play from 1916 that used it.)
Billy arrives at the Asheville office all chipper and enthusiastic, but Lucy and Daryl, two comic figures in this almost unrelentingly melodramatic plot (there’s one other: Margo has an unwelcome suitor, Max, played by Max Chernin, whose advances are childishly inappropriate), warn him that Alice is not kind to young writers; she once even bought Ernest Hemingway to tears. (Daryl, we learn, has been submitting stories to the journal under a pen name, each of them rejected.) Billy announces he has a letter of encouragement from Thomas Wolfe, to whom the tyro author says he sent samples of his work while overseas. Alice is intrigued—even though, she observes, Wolfe died seven years earlier. When Billy hands Alice his stories, however, something makes her decide to take them home to read. She seems to feel some kind of connection to the young man. (Again, the foreshadowing of something momentous to come. Can you guess yet? Diana and I did.) Her general advice: “You need to find a sweeping tale of pain and redemption.” (Hint, hint.) She buys a story from him for $10—not to publish, but just to encourage him.
After returning briefly to Hayes Creek to tell Margo the news—and show her the check (the equivalent today of the munificent sum of $130), Billy moves to Asheville (“Asheville”) to write day and night, taking Alice’s criticism to heart. (“Which words should I cut, Miss Murphy?” asks Billy. “The superfluous ones,” Alice replies brusquely.) She begins to act more like a mentor than the cold-hearted and exacting editor of her reputation. (Hmmm.)
Meanwhile, back in 1923 Zebulon (there are a lot of meanwhiles in Bright Star; the show hops back and forth between 1945-46 and 1923 every few scenes), Jimmy Ray and Alice are at a big town fête and go off together for a stroll by the river. They soon end up in a passionate kiss, the culmination of which is left to our imaginations (does it take much to guess?). Eleven weeks later, Alice sees a doctor (Michael X. Martin) who informs her she’s pregnant. She knows Jimmy Ray will marry her and they’ll raise their baby together, and sure enough, Jimmy Ray steps up (“I Can’t Wait”)—but Mayor Dobbs has a thing or two to say about this (“A Man’s Gotta Do”). He offers Alice a secluded cabin in the woods where she can be alone (and, unsaid of course, have the baby out of everyone’s view). Alice gives birth to a son, and her mother and father, who’ve made a rather abrupt shift from their stern disapproval in the face of this situation, tend Alice and Jimmy Ray visits—until his father sends him off on a “business errand.” Then the big shock comes: Mayor Dobbs and Daddy Murphy have colluded in a plan to take the baby boy to Raleigh for a “private and legal” adoption. With Alice and Mama Murphy struggling against him, the mayor’s minion (William Youmans) almost literally tears the newborn from Alice’s arms (“Please, Don’t Take Him”) and places him in a leather handbag for the train trip to Raleigh. (Can everyone guess where this is leading?)
Mayor Dobbs is on the train, which we learn later passes through Hayes Creek on its way to Raleigh (reprise “A Man’s Gotta Do”), with the leather bag and at the close of act one, he leaves his seat and walks to the end of the train and flings the bag off the platform into the river below. It arcs in slow motion until it hangs just over the front row of the house as act one ends.
At the start of act two, we’re again in Zebulon in 1923 (“Sun Is Gonna Shine”). Jimmy Ray is about to leave for Chapel Hill (where Alice has gone now on an anonymously-funded scholarship to UNC—Can you guess where that came from?), but Mayor Dobbs confesses to his son that there never had been an adoption and tells him the horror story of the train trip. Completely undone, Jimmy Ray decides he can never face Alice again, knowing what his father has just told him (“I Had a Vision”).
Back in 1945, we find that Alice as been traveling to Raleigh regularly for over two decades to look through the county records for documents on the adoption of her son, always to no avail. She asks the clerk (Alison Briner-Dardenne), who’s staffed the desk for 20 years, if anyone else has ever come asking about the same baby, but the clerk tells her no one ever has. On her way to the train back to Asheville, she passes by the big house in Raleigh where Jimmy Ray now lives. He just happens to be coming out the door as she walks by and they greet one another awkwardly. (The big house is his sister’s; Jimmy Ray tells Alice he never married.) Alice asks if Jimmy Ray ever tried to find their son, and Jimmy Ray finally tells Alice the awful truth.
After Alice returns to Asheville, she tells the office that she’s going to make a trip back to Zebulon to see her parents. Billy arrives at just that moment and suggests that since Hayes Creek is on the way (See how that train line works? Any guesses what that suggests?), wouldn’t Alice like to stop and meet his father and see where he came from? Alice agrees, but must go to Zebulon first and will stop in Hayes Creek in the way back. Alice also announces that she’s buying one of Billy’s new stories for publication in the next issue.
In Zebulon, Alice has a reunion with her father while her mother is off at a neighbors. He takes advantage of being alone with her to ask her forgiveness for his action the night he and Mayor Dobbs took her baby away from her. He’s regretted that act ever since; his wife, who’s returned quietly, stops just within earshot and hears her husband’s confession. Though he’s never forgiven himself, Alice tells him she forgave him long ago.
Billy rushes back to Hayes Creek and Margo to share the great news about his story. Almost by accident, he finds himself engaged to the woman who’s stood by him for so long (“Always Will”). Then he goes to his father’s cabin, and Alice shows up as Billy and his father are sipping a little moonshine Daddy Cane keeps under the porch. As Alice and Daddy Cane get acquainted, Billy goes into the cabin to get some of his old clothes to take to his own home, now that he’s going to be married, and his father offers him an old satchel he’s had put away. Of course, Alice recognizes the bag at once, and then, to clinch the revelation, Billy comes out onto the porch with an old sweater from his childhood he’d found. (There were actually gasps in the audience—from those who hadn’t figured this part out already.) It’s the very sweater Alice made for her son and which he was wearing the night he was taken from her (“At Long Last,” Brickell’s other solo composition).
When Alice tells the Canes that she knows the bag and the sweater, Daddy Cane comes out with the whole story of that night. He’d gone off to the river to look for good, fat frogs for the night’s supper. In the evening darkness, he hears the train go by above him and then finds the leather satchel and the crying infant boy inside, a little banged up but otherwise fine. He and his wife aren’t young and they never had children so he sees this little Moses from the rushes as a gift from heaven. (That bit’s true, by the way—except that the bag was apparently a cardboard suitcase.) Well, of course, no one has any doubt that Billy is Alice’s son and that they’ve found each other after 20 years. (In real life, William Helms never learned who his birth parents were.)
Back in Asheville, Billy brings Margo to the office to introduce everyone to his fiancée. Who else shows up but Jimmy Ray, who, after greeting his son, promptly proposes to Alice. The show ends with the prospect of a double wedding of mother and son to their long-enduring loves. (What an incredibly neat bow! Pause for handkerchief break.)
Diana and I felt the show was pretty bad overall; most of the rest of the audience—the house was fairly full—seemed to have loved it. The production was okay (with some reservations, which I’ll get to), but the book and lyrics were mediocre and the music uninteresting and repetitive. I kept thinking how my friend Kirk, who’s from Kentucky (one state up and one over from North Carolina), would react to the book, which is almost a travesty of Southern life and characters. (Think Hee-Haw lite.) If this show goes on tour in the South, I predict picket lines.
In a March New York Times feature article drawn from an interview with the co-creators of Bright Star, Dave Iztkoff reported that Martin and Brickell affirmed that the musical’s “overall sensibility . . . is earnest, unironic and absent of cynicism,” which strikes me as antithetical to humor or even lightness of touch. Nevertheless, on NPR’s Morning Edition last year, interviewer Vince Pearson, referring to “that Steve Martin sense of humor,” remarked that the comedian-librettist “says he worked really hard to get the funny parts just right.” Martin’s book is, in fact, relentlessly melodramatic and cliché-ridden. It’s actually two clichés: the abandoned-baby story and the wannabe-writer tale. They’re both contrived and set-up, but nevertheless completely predictable, especially if you’ve heard the story of what inspired the play. (After all, it’s all over the media.) What little humor there is is forced, brittle, and artificial.
Furthermore, the narrative bounces back and forth between 1945 and 1923 so much that it’s hard to keep the story straight—which characters belong in ’23 and which in ’45 and which in both. There are scenes in about four North Carolina towns, but the main stories take place largely in the two small towns of Zebulon and Hayes Creek, one which exists mostly in ’23 (at the end we see it in ’45) and the other in ’45 (with one flashback to ’23). It’s just as hard to keep the towns straight, too—which one we’re supposed to be in.
The characters are stereotypes, written as Southern caricatures. Both Martin and Brickell were born in Texas, though Martin grew up in California. But the lyricist stated, “I grew up in the country a lot as a little girl so I know all these different characters and it’s easy for me to remember them and let them spark my imagination.” How did she let them get so stereotypical, then? They’re so flat and shallow that none really stands out, so even the good performances are wasted. The reviews seem to be declaring Carmen Cusack a new star (her character is the bridge between ’23 and ’45), but what she has to do so hamstrings the quality of her work that only theater pros would be able to see that she’s more than just competent. The other cast members who are good don’t even have her platform to shine from. (Dee Hoty, a three-time Tony-nominee, is totally wasted as Mama Murphy she’s so underused.)
In the NPR interview, Martin revealed that he and his partner “grew up on musicals and . . . we’d loved them.” Then on CBS-TV’s Sunday Morning last month, the collaborators explained “that they deliberately created a more traditional musical, like the ones they grew up loving,” having earlier identified The Music Man (Martin) and The Sound of Music (Brickell) as favorites. Unlike those Golden Age classics, however, Martin’s music, arranged by August Eriksmoen and conducted by Rob Berman, seems repetitious to me (some reviewers tried to argue that that’s the reaction of someone who doesn’t understand bluegrass—but I say repetitive is repetitive, no matter the genre) and Brickell’s lyrics are trite and also repeat themselves—not just between songs, but within them as well. One important song (it even gets a reprise) is called “A Man’s Gotta Do”—a great example of triteness in its own right—and the opening words are: “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do / When a man’s gotta do what he’s gotta.” Really? (That’s the refrain; it comes up at least twice in each rendition of the song. So the line’s repetitive, and then the repetition is repeated! Got it?)
There’s a title song, “Bright Star” (which originally was the opening number until director Walter Bobbie got Martin and Brickell to write a new one—which essentially gives away the whole plot!), but I still don’t get why that’s the title of the play—except as some ethereal symbol of hope and inspiration. That seems a flimsy reason to make it the name of the play. They had to write a song just to justify the play’s title—it has no connection to anything concrete in the play.
Many of the notices praised Eugene Lee’s set, which is principally a mobile, open-sided cabin that doubles as the homes of the Murphys and the Canes and the bandstand for the 10-piece bluegrass combo. It’s rolled (by members of the ensemble) all around the stage at times. I found it way too busy and giddy. There’s also other moving scenery, including a sky drop that transforms the brick rear wall of the set into the silhouette of a mountain range and a toy train that runs above the set as a symbol of the central plot element, to add to the whirligig set. It’s all too much for this slight play to support; something simpler would have suited Bright Star better.
Despite my comments about the characters, I don’t put any of the blame on the actors. The company of 22 is, like the overdesigned set, more than Bright Star can manage, however. Director Bobbie seems to like large ensemble numbers and brings out all the chorus members (there are 12, plus the 10 principals) for many of the songs as if they were just waiting in the shadows to pop out and sing and dance up a hootenanny, choreographed by Josh Rhodes. (There was a sketch on the old Carol Burnett Show, a spoof of a soap opera scene, in which Carol and her lover are in a stall shower having a heavy melodramatic conversation as the background music swells to impossible heights. The camera pans around to reveal that the musicians are actually in the shower with the two lovers. Bright Star’s chorus, appearing without rationale, reminded me of this kind of incongruity—except, of course, the Burnett sketch was meant to be silly—and hardly “unironic.”) Perhaps this, along with the moving scenery, is intended to stand in for the action the play otherwise lacks.
The principals all seem creditable, however, though it’s hard to be more explicit because the roles they have to play are so one-dimensional and hackneyed. Billy is all puppyish enthusiasm and hope, and Shively pulls it off with sincerity and commitment—but the script gives him nowhere to take it; as Margo, Elless, in a part so underwritten as to seem like an afterthought, is his distaff counterpart. Jimmy Ray is adolescent earnestness and determination personified, but Nolan, too, has no outlet for his character’s apparent strength. Martin never reconciled Jimmy Ray’s apparent fortitude as a young stalwart, with the way he’s constantly cowed by his father, and poor Nolan had no way to paper that hole over. Daddy Murphy has to sublime from stern religiosity to unfeeling hardness to abject self-blame—but Anderson manages to make him seem at least as real as a soap opera character. Mulheren’s Mayor Dobbs is a dyed-in-the-wool heartless businessman/family patriarch, a predictable villain right out of 19th-century meller-drammer—but there’s nothing the actor can do about that except embody it wholly, and Mulheren does. Only Alice has any chance to show some dimension, but even she gets only two: the unruly and unrulable precocious teen of 1923 Zebulon and the cold, humorless editor of 1945 Asheville—and Cusack handles both well enough, but it’s like two actors, one for the spirited girl and another for the damaged woman, and they don’t feel connected to one another except that we’re told they are. Even Alice’s final transformation, at the discovery of Billy’s real identity, is too pat and artificial to be truly plausible despite Cusack’s honest effort to pull it off.
I have to add a word here about Blumenkrantz’s Daryl. He plays Alice’s officious editorial assistant so fey (Talkin’ Broadway’s Matthew Murray aptly called Daryl a “Paul Lynde part”), the implication is that he must be gay (not a word, much less a lifestyle, anyone tossed around in 1945, especially in the conservative South). I presume Bobbie had a hand in this characterization, and also in the rather obvious and cheap double-entendres that adhere to some of the lines in one office scene. The chuckles from the audience were out of place, and if they were intentionally generated by Martin or Bobbie, someone should be ashamed of himself.
Because this is a Broadway première and the creators are simultaneously known cultural figures and novice musical-theater artists, Bright Star attracted a lot of coverage. In addition to pre-Broadway interviews and features in newspapers and magazines and on TV and radio, there have been reviews of the New York production in papers from Los Angeles, Chicago, and several other cities. (This is on top of the published notices for the San Diego début and the Washington outing.) I won’t include the out-of-town press in my round-up of reviews—it would just be too much to cover; I will include the national papers like USA Today. Most reviewers liked the play with reservations, but almost all of them praised Martin’s music and Brickell’s lyrics. The production, including the acting, also received plaudits in most outlets. Diana and I weren’t alone in our disappointment, but we were decidedly outvoted by both that night’s fellow theatergoers and the press.
No one was higher on Bright Star than the Times’ Christopher Isherwood. Calling the play “a fresh breeze from the South,” he contrasted it with the more usual fare on Broadway, saying, “The musical is gentle-spirited, not gaudy, and moves with an easygoing grace where others prance and strut.” The Timesman continued his compliment: “And it tells a sentiment-spritzed story . . . that you might be more likely to encounter in black and white, flickering from your flat-screen on Turner Classic Movies.” Isherwood posited that Alice’s prescription for what Billy should be writing, “a sweeping tale of pain and redemption,” is “a fitting description . . . of the story the musical proceeds to unfold.” Bright Star’s plot, he asserted, “involves events more likely to be found in radio serials and movies of yore,” but counted “among the pleasures of ‘Bright Star’ . . . the sheer yarniness of the yarn that unspools.” While Isherwood warned that “the story certainly skirts (if not embraces) sentimentality and the overripeness of melodrama,” he added that “the production’s soft-hued style—and the sometimes wry tone of Mr. Martin’s book—keeps it from curdling into treacle.” He found that Martin and Brickell’s songs, “beautifully played” under Rob Berman’s direction, “boast simple but seductive melodies, and lyrics that have a sweet, homespun quality.” The Times reviewer labeled the performances “superb” and singled out Cusack, Shively, and Nolan for special praise. Isherwood’s one complaint was that the play “untangles all the knots in its story in something of a rush,” but even the double wedding at the end, while it may “strain credulity,” is a plot conclusion also used by “a celebrated writer.” “This would be William Shakespeare,” Isherwood made sure we knew. (Shakespeare also wrote that “comparisons are odorous,” and I don’t think this one’s deserved.)
In amNewYork, Matt Windman, labeling Bright Star “a total anomaly” in comparison to other Broadway musicals because it’s “wholly original,” described the new play as “unashamedly sentimental and romantic.” Windman found Bright Star “a heartwarming and crowd-pleasing musical” because of its “many pleasant country songs . . ., a sunny disposition and a Southern Gothic flavor,” despite a plot that “can be jumbled, improbable and sappy, and the characters [that] are undeveloped.” The “attractive” production “is marked by vibrant performances, brisk movement . . . and a backwoods visual design” and Windman singled out Cusack, Shively, Nolan, Mulheren, and Blumenkrantz among the “winning cast.” Newsday’s Linda Winer’s “Bottom Line” was: “Wonderful bluegrass show”; she reported, “It doesn’t shy away from the cornball or the unapologetically sentimental. And, yes, the plot is implausibly romantic and hinged on coincidence.” Nonetheless, Bright Star’s “downright wonderful—a multichambered sweetheart of an original.” The Newsday reviewer added that “all the characters . . . are richly developed without a hint of big-city patronization,” specifying, “There’s not a bumpkin or cardboard villain in the lot.” “This is a show that creeps up on you,” said Winer, though some of the songs “seem awfully simple and self-explanatory” and the mobile cabin “gets lugged around until we worry about motion sickness.” But “the relationships deepen and darken” as the plot “grows with the complexity of a juicy short story.” The cast “is uniformly appealing” and the “choreography . . . brings a haunting moodiness.” Winer concluded by lauding the score, “which builds with rhythmic surprises, melodic complexity and the deep satisfaction of humming and plucking strings.”
In the Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz declared that Bright Star’s creators “aim straight for the heart,” even if it “isn’t a bullseye.” Nevertheless, “it’s sweet and tender and boasts a fine cast.” The “bluegrassy score is mellow and pretty,” Dziemianowicz felt. “But it’s also repetitive—melodically and lyrically.” Like Alice’s advice to Billy about cutting “superfluous words,” the Newsman pointed out, “The show could have cut some too,” and observed, “A big reveal is seen coming a mile away.” The reviewer wound up by noting that director Bobbie and choreographer Josh Rhodes “keep the show chugging along.” The New York Post’s Elisabeth Vincentelli characterized Bright Star as “a Broadway oddity” because it “juxtaposes an over-the-top plot with a low-key production and mild-tempered music.” “The show,” Vincentelli wrote, “ambles along, alternating between lively hootenannies and lovely ditties” and the “show’s droll, earnest tone does have its appeal,” with evidence of Martin’s sense of humor in occasional lines. The Post review-writer summed up: “As a gentle fable, ‘Bright Star’ has a quirky charm, but its stubborn refusal to face up to its dark side diminishes it.”
In a brief review in the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout noted that Martin is “a good banjo player who writes not-so-great plays,” and added, “Now he’s branched out by writing a really bad bluegrass-pop musical.” The rest of Teachout’s short notice dismissed the whole enterprise:
In “Bright Star,” directed by Walter Bobbie, Mr. Martin and Edie Brickell, a singer-songwriter with whom he has made two albums, tell the story of a painfully earnest young writer from the hills of North Carolina (A. J. Shively) who comes home from World War II and sells a painfully earnest short story to a prestigious Asheville quarterly edited by an unhappy woman (Carmen Cusack) with a terrible secret—or, rather, a Terrible Secret, this being the kind of show that is constructed exclusively out of uppercase clichés. The best thing about “Bright Star” is the music, which is bland and undramatic but competently wrought. The plot is trite, the dialogue humorless and stiff, the lyrics stupefyingly banal (one song actually starts with the line “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do”).
The cast and onstage band work hard and Mr. Bobbie does his best to breathe life into “Bright Star,” but if Mr. Martin’s name weren’t on the marquee, it wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near Broadway.
Teachout’s WSJ review summed up precisely Diana’s and my opinion; it was the rare notice that did. In USA Today, Elysa Gardner asserted that Martin and Brickell “have set a high bar for themselves,” aspiring “to the kind of emotional sweep and folksy wit we associate with Golden Age musicals.” Martin, however, “captures some of that old-school spirit with a book that’s as forthright as it is smart, funny and charming.” Gardner felt that “Martin and Brickell refuse to condescend to their own characters,” and director Bobbie “culls spirited, endearing performances from the actors.” The “score poses a few challenges,” noted the USA Today reviewer, “though not to the performers, or the superb bluegrass band accompanying them,” while the “production numbers are exuberantly served by the musicians, and by Josh Rhodes’ vibrant choreography,” though “some of the more delicate ballads seem to strain for theatricality; you sense they’d be more at home in a coffeehouse than driving an ambitious story on a Broadway stage.” Gardner concluded, “The tone in which that story is delivered can also wobble a bit,” but nevertheless, “this gently shining Star holds its own.”
“Finally, that all-singing, all-dancing John Keats musical has arrived on Broadway!” quipped Alexis Soloski in the U.S. edition of the Guardian, a joking reference to the 2009 film that shares a title with this musical. “No. Wait. Sorry,” Soloski continued. This one’s “a bluegrass tuner” that recounts a “sweet and occasionally sugary tale.” Following several out-of-town try-outs, the review-writer of the Guardian noted, “Bright Star is still suffering some issues of scale. The story it tells is a small and tender one and the staging and the music, playful and lovely, sometimes struggle to fill the house.” (As an example, she found the little train “that trundles on a trestle above the stage . . . both charming and chintzy.”) Soloski had problems with the book, showing only “occasional flashes of Martin’s wit,” which tells a story that “is poignant, yet somehow less than consequential, in part because the great and ostensibly astonishing reveal is telegraphed from the beginning, but mainly because the music never quite rises to the emotive crescendos the tale would seem to demand.” The song’s lyrics she compared to “Hallmark Card-ish aphorism the chorus often repeats.” With compliments for the acting of Cusack, Nolan, Shively, and Elless, as well as Eriksmoen’s orchestrations (“appealing”) and Rhodes’s choreography (“spirited and graceful”), Soloski concluded, however, that “Bright Star doesn’t fully shine.” Like the Wall Street Journal, the Village Voice gave the production short shrift, commenting only in an omnibus article. Heather Baysa wrote only that Bright Star “is the kind of production Broadway was made for—and also the kind of production that was made for Broadway. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: There’s something charming about soaring ballads, unrestrained emotion, unapologetic spectacle, and aggressively feel-good storytelling.”
In its capsule review in “Goings On About Town,” the New Yorker described Bright Star as a “bighearted musical” whose “two plots converge in a soapy twist you can see coming acres away, with a weepy ending as implausible as one of Shakespeare’s quadruple weddings.” The anonymous reviewer concluded, “But the show sings and swings to the sound of its lovingly and furiously played fiddle, banjo, and mandolin.” In New York magazine, Jesse Green acknowledged, “There’s a lot to like in Bright Star and a lot to admire in the way it was made,” specifying its originality. Green went on, however, to report that of the two intertwined stories, the one about Billy and Margo is “awkwardly sandwiched within” the tale of Alice and Jimmy Ray. He found “that it doesn’t take a wizard to figure out how these stories eventually intersect,” partly because, he reported that the opening song, “If You Knew My Story,” “does its ‘show the audience what to expect’ job too well. With banal, self-cancelling, upbeat lyrics like ‘If you knew my story you’d have a good story to tell,’ it mostly shows us that we are going to have . . . a banal, self-cancelling, upbeat musical, the kind that wants to demonstrate a lot of heart without actually having one.” The man from New York had a problem with how “the stories intersect with the songs”: while the score “sounds great,” it “almost always does exactly the opposite of what a story-based musical requires.” Green explained: “Instead of deepening and specifying the emotional situations they arise from, the songs repeat, in the most clichéd terms, what we already know from the dialogue.” He added, “It’s not that the words don’t fit the tune. Rather, they lack the granularity, the fingerprint, of lived experience” and went on in a little detail:
Pop music rarely works as theater music exactly because it’s rarely so specific: It is most often told in the songwriter’s voice, not a character’s, and is designed to reach everyone, not someone. [I note here that ROT contributor Kirk Woodward has discussed this very problem in “Theatrical and Popular Songs,” 2 October 2011.] So the fact that Martin and Brickell, in their songwriting at least, are so broadly unironic—a rare thing in musical theater today—turns out to be not a boon but a boondoggle. Their sincerity keeps collapsing on itself; in compensation we get plenty of that all-purpose Broadway grout known as charm.
“Charm is what Cusack . . . uses to produce . . . a marvelous, dense performance from obvious, thin information,” applauded Green, though he added that “the rest of the cast, having even less to build from, overdo it.” He also found Lee’s set “charming” quipping that it “looks like it escaped from his set for Sweeney Todd.” The direction is “unusually handsome, integrating the choreography . . . into the storytelling more successfully than the songs.” In the end, Green concluded, “Still, all this charm undermines the tone of what is, au fond, a sad and almost gothic story.”
Although complaining that there are more than enough bluegrass musicals on Broadway just now (The Robber Bridegroom and Southern Comfort in addition to Bright Star), Variety’s Marilyn Stasio wrote, “‘Bright Star’ is Broadway-slick under Walter Bobbie’s direction, with top-rung creatives involved in the production . . . and an appealing lead performance from Carmen Cusack,” adding the caveat: “But the sheer scale of the package overwhelms this sweet but slender homespun material.” The production’s “versatile” set is “properly rustic,” and the rolling cabin-bandstand is a “neat trick”; Martin’s music “sounds completely authentic,” however, the songs “also sound repetitive.” “The big drawback to the chatty lyrics,” reported Stasio, “is that they re-hash the plot’s melodramatic content, but neglect to deepen or explore the characters, who all speak in such exaggerated twangs they sound dimwitted.”
In the Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney’s “Bottom Line” was simply “Hokey but heartwarming”; he went on to say that “the plot contrivances” of the play “are so fanciful that only Shakespeare could have gotten away with them. Still,” continued Rooney, “there’s a disarming sweetness and sincerity to this folksy Americana bluegrass musical . . . which makes the tuneful melodrama a pleasurable experience.” Martin’s book, felt the HR reviewer, “is stuffed with corn and with as many improbable coincidences as plot holes. But the show’s prime asset is the duo’s lovely score,” and “the pretty ballads and jaunty square-dance tunes generally are easy on the ear, richly evoking a time and place while amplifying the earnest and affecting sentiments of this proudly uncynical musical.” Brickell’s lyrics, however, “lack imagination and specificity, and can seem awkwardly pasted onto gentle melodies that at times become a little samey.” Rooney also cautioned that “it’s not intended as a dig to say that the show has the comfort-food appeal of an emotionally uplifting basic-cable movie,” and he predicted, “That means many mainstream audiences will find it satisfying entertainment, though probably more so on tour in the regions than in the crowded marketplace of New York.” In the end, however, Rooney allowed that when Cusack sings her final number, “it’s easy to overlook the shortcomings of the musical’s craft and go with its sweet-natured optimism.”
Time Out New York’s Adam Feldman dubbed Bright Star a “gawky tall tale” and declared that Martin and Brickell “fall short” in the telling of it. The show “aspires to be . . . ‘a sweeping tale of pain and redemption,’” instead, Feldman complained, it “trudges inexorably toward a second-act twist that is at once preposterous and head-smackingly predictable.” What it needs, the man from TONY asserted, is “an editor’s sharp blue pencil.” The reviewer ticked off some of the production’s faults:
Sweeping? In lieu of the color that the story seems to call for, Walter Bobbie’s production is often actively plain, as though trying to hide its central bathos in beige. Painful? For the audience, perhaps, thanks to shoddy craftsmanship that saddles likable, plucky bluegrass music with lyrics that run from workmanlike to egregious.
With praise for Cusack’s Alice, both in the writing and the playing, Feldman concluded, “If not much else, the musical does right by its star, the bright spot in a sky of murk.” Stressing that “it’s Martin and Brickell’s music that’s the brightest star in Bright Star,” Jessica Derschowitz declared in Entertainment Weekly that “the heart of this new musical [is] the sweeping songs that elevate the show above the melodramatic pair of Southern love stories that form its plot.” The play’s narratives conclude, objected the EW reviewer, “with a twist that seems all too convenient and end with a bow that’s perhaps too neat” and it “often verges on corny,” but “Cusack is a revelation” and the rest of the cast “also do fine work.” In the end, the “story’s fine, sure. But the music is much better.”
On NBC television in New York, Robert Kahn said, “There’s much to admire in the final product: The musical is twangy and tightly performed, with a sweeping score,” but he lamented, “My enjoyment was muted only by the mostly modest character development.” The music, Kahn reported, “is rootsy and most often joyful,” however, of the book, the TV reviewer “felt that too often I was being told what to feel, without being given opportunity to feel it. Connective tissue between the storylines, probably intended to sneak up on us at the end, seemed obvious halfway through the first act.” Director Bobbie, Kahn continued, “might’ve tightened the screws on the musical’s climax,” and he had problems with the play’s “borderline-humorous tone” in some scenes as well as some of the attempts at character development. The WNBC reporter “loved the onstage band,” but summed up with: “It’s not a perfect musical; this ‘Star’ doesn’t always guide the way, but at times it beams brightly enough.”
AP’s drama reviewer, Mark Kennedy, began his notice, the most negative I found, with: “‘If you knew my story, you’d have a good story to tell,’ the leading lady sings. But after 2½ hours of this down-home hokum, the answer is clear: No, we don’t.” Martin and Brickell have written, affirmed Kennedy, “a cliche-ridden, foot-pounding, over-eager Southern Gothic romance that ill serves a wonderful Broadway debut in Carmen Cusack.” The AP reviewer lambasted Bright Star by asserting that it “never hits an honest note and seems to have been written by two people who adore classic Broadway musicals but who have intentionally decided to make a third-rate version.” He called the music “weak, with few of the songs fully fleshed out and some having been recycled from the pair’s previous CDs.” Kennedy went on: “The book and lyrics are even more feeble, with graceless lines like ‘I’m ready for my life to begin!’ and ‘I knew this day would come’ and weird characters,” reporting that director Bobbie “gets everything out of his cast and keeps a frenetic pace going but for no clear payoff.” The secret at the center of the plot, Kennedy announced, is “obvious”; the act one climax contains “one of the lousiest special effects in Broadway history”; the play’s ending is “a forced happy note”; Cusack, the stand-out of the cast, commits to “an odd role”; the denizens of the bookshop and the journal office are “quirky folk” in a story where “everyone . . . is bookish and smart”; and, finally, the “attempt to make sense of it all is fumbled.” Even the setting suffers Kennedy’s derision (the rationale for my prediction of pickets at Southern theaters):
This is a weird sort of South that only exists in the daydreams of other musicals. This is a South with overalls and suspenders, moonshine, stolen kisses by the river and where pretty dresses in boxes are a reason to stop everything and gasp gleefully. Everyone is white. Everyone.
On the website Broadway World, Michael Dale declared of Bright Star, “Despite all of its pleasant earnestness and the genuine talent behind its creation, the new Southern Gothic musical . . . shows all the signs of being written by a pair who have not quite grasped some of the basics of the genre’s craft.” Dale admonished, “It’s never a good idea to have a secondary character with a secret mutter, ‘I knew this day would come,’ near the end of act two, especially when the audience was ready for it to come seven or eight songs ago.” Furthermore, the BWW reviewer warned that “it’s a crime against the theatre gods to give your star a lot of stage time, but no real chance for her character to connect with the audience.” Though he found Berman’s musical ensemble “terrific,” Dale felt that some of “the music and lyrics are embarrassingly heavy-handed” and the lyrics lack “specificity.” Like the AP’s Kennedy, Dale also found the stage effect at the end of act one “such a letdown.” “For a musical about literary folk,” concluded Dale, “Bright Star’s words never approach the stimulating freshness and intelligence of other current musicals about writers” and the cyber reviewer’s final word was: “Nice music, fine performances, but other than that, barely a twinkle.”
Talkin’ Broadway’s Matthew Murray asked, “Who would have thought that something this fresh could seem so stale?” Murray asserted that “the overwhelming feeling” generated by Bright Star “is the exhaustion of cliché,” a feeling that the “other, better elements” can’t “fully mask.” The problem, Murray explained, is that “there's nothing new in either the story or the telling of it,” and however “openhearted” it is, it’s also “empty-headed.” Fundamentally, the TB blogger insisted, there isn’t “much meat here” and he cautioned, “If you don’t like always being smarter than the characters you’re watching or always keeping eight steps ahead of the plot, Bright Star is not remotely your kind of show.” The play’s structure is “a genuine organizational mess” and “it’s rarely possible to know which” story to follow “or why.” The lyrics, Murray affirmed, are “generic” or “trite”; the result is “a musical that never comes alive emotionally.” Even the “twangy and authentic” sound can’t overcome “the overall meaningless of their words and presentation,” and even as “good” as the “supporting players are . . . their characters don't make firm impressions.” The one exception Murray singled out is Cusack, “making the kind of thunder-clapping Broadway debut we see too rarely.” Unfortunately, the TB reviewer lamented, “It's not enough to elevate the evening above the pedestrian.”
Declaring that Bright Star is “chockablock with assets to make for an enjoyable, feel good two hours” on CurtainUp, Elyse Sommer nevertheless predicted that the play “is unlikely to [b]ecome part of the canon of ground breaking musicals.” Still, the CU reviewer suggested, “So give in to Bright Star’s charms, as [I] did, and let the nitpickers complain.” Nonetheless, Sommer presented a list of deficiencies to be overlooked: “an inevitably happy ending that relies on some pretty far-fetched contrivances,” a situation “patterned after an eventually flourishing pulp magazine . . . called I Confess,” and a “Southern gothic twist [that] can be guessed at even before” the start of act two.” But Cusack’s Alice, Sommer assured theatergoers, “is your chance to see a-star-is-born Broadway debut,” as well as the work of the rest of the ensemble. She described the work of director Bobbie and the designers as “skillful” and “fluid,” with special mention of Lee’s moving cabin. The band’s accompaniment “is very much a show highlight” and Rhodes’s choreography is “ superb, often poetic.”
On New York Theatre Guide, Tulis McCall warned, “There is a lot of yarn being spun in Bright Star,” which she described as “a sprawling tale” and “as hokey a tale as you would find in any black and white movie from the 40’s.” Predicting a Tony nomination for Cusack, McCall recommended “we let go of the reins and let these folks take us for a ride,” even though “it takes a while for the story to reveal a clear direction.” “Although the sweet quotient on this production is through the [roof]—diabetics be forewarned,” the NYTG reviewer noted, “—there is still the honest facts of pain and disappointment.” “There’s more content than [is] needed” and “[s]ongs go on a little long,” and she warned, “You can see the conclusion coming a mile away like a train light in a tunnel, but the show is so exquisite in every way that you don’t mind watching everything unfold.” McCall dubs the cast “a marvel of ensemble work” and Bobbie’s putting the musicians on stage “was a wonderful choice”; in the end, Bright Star “is an evening that will take you out of the city and off to the mysterious magic of the” Southern mountains.
On Theatre Reviews Limited, David Roberts, calling Bright Star “an old fashioned Broadway musical” and “a celebration of storytelling,” pronounced it “a welcomed infusion of optimism “ and “a delightful breath of fresh air.” The play’s characters “are well-rounded and have universal conflicts” and so the story “is also universal and engaging”; what’s more, Roberts said, “Its themes are important and life affirming.” Furthermore, the Theatre Reviews writer felt that “the stories develop in interesting ways with wonderful surprises.” He described the cast as “uniformly magnificent” and Bobbie’s direction as “careful”; as did other reviewers, Roberts gave special praise to Cusack and complimented the work of others such as Nolan, Bogardus, Padgett, and all of the principal players. Rhodes’s choreography is “exquisite . . . with a superb gracefulness and energy,” the review-writer acknowledged, though he found Lee’s moving cabin “sometimes . . . intrusive.” Roberts felt that “some of the story seems contrived and sometimes predictable,” but the musical was directed “with an intensity and freshness that is remarkable and noteworthy.” Sandi Durell of Theatre Pizzazz perceived “a feeling of corn” at the start of Bright Star, but “you just learn to accept and truly enjoy much of the music, lyrics and storytelling” of the play. Rhodes’s choreography is “lively hootenanny, hand and thigh slapping,” Bobbie’s direction “makes magic,” and Lee’s scenery is “simple, yet effective.” Durell’s bottom line is: “Bright Star has a down home warmth that draws the audience into its glow.”
[Diana and I had a really lousy night after we left the theater as well. As usual, Diana was running late and then when she got to the theater district, her usual parking area was blocked by some kind of police action. So she grabbed what she thought was a legal spot near a fire plug, thinking she’d left enough room to make it safe. Guess what. When we got to where she left her car after the show, it was gone—towed. April Fools! Diana had to call 311 to find out where it was (it turned out to have been taken less than five minutes before we got to the parking spot!) and then catch a cab to the pier that's the police impound lot for Manhattan.
[I had offered to go with her for moral support, but when we got to the facility, Diana couldn't find her credit card to pay the fare. (It turned out she’d dropped her wallet at the theater; the Cort house manager called her the next day.) I ponied up, but I would also have to cover the towing charge as well so Diana could reclaim her car. Fortunately, the retrieval process is very efficient and the whole mess took about an hour—including the time to walk to where Diana left her car, and then look around because, in her rush to get to the theater on time, she wasn't absolutely certain where she parked.
[What I said to Diana when we found that the car had been towed was that it was a good thing the show wasn't good. If we'd had this experience after a good show, it would have ruined it. The way it was, there was nothing to detract from!
[Irony may be dead—but cynicism isn’t!]