“Bright Star,” a musical written and composed by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, and its triumphant star Carmen Cusack should have garnered more attention on Broadway, but are shining in the national tour that opened at the Ahmanson Theatre on Friday, October 20. Presented by Center Theatre Group, the bluegrass-infused musical offers a tale of moving love and redemption set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina in after World War II, with flashbacks to 1923.
The book’s melodramatic content involves two sets of lovers. The first features the smart and sassy girl Alice Murphy, who has a puritanical father, and the Mayor’s son Jimmy Ray Dobbs. A teen pregnancy and ambitious fathers force the two apart. The second duo features a returning vet who wants to be the next Hemingway and the pretty girl in town who grew up while he was away.
The show opens with Alice singing, “If you knew my story, my heaven and my hell; if you knew my story, you’d have a good story to tell.” The story, as presented, is good, not great, slow at times, and has a shocking twist at the end of the first act. However, the ultimate journey is enjoyable, largely due to the melodies, staging and earnest cast.
Timing is everything?
“Bright Star” could have been a Broadway star. It received five Tony Award nominations in 2016, including Best Musical, Best Lead Actress in a Musical, Best Score, Best Book, and Best Orchestrations. Unfortunately for those nominated (and the box office), there was a brighter star that swept the musical categories that year – “Hamilton.” So the show did not last long.
Tony-nominee Carmen Cusack’s tenure as the lead, magazine editor Alice Murphy, stood out during the 2015-2016 Broadway season. She clearly stood out as a talent at the Ahmanson. Cusack is luminous and believable, both as a rebellious teen and jaded middle-aged editor who yearns for the child she lost. The transformations are more than letting her hair down, literally; her whole demeanor changes as the timeframe changes back and forth.
Cusack had worked with the “Bright Star” creative team as they developed the musical in 2013. She always assumed that a better-known actress would assume the role on Broadway. But, she clearly made it her own. She is reprising her role for national tour stops in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Salt Lake City.
Four other actors in Los Angeles were in the Broadway cast. A.J. Shively, who plays the talented young writer/dreamer Billy Cane, has also been with the show since its workshops. Jeff Blumenkrantz provides comic relief as Daryl Ames, one of Alice’s employees, a role he held in Manhattan. Maddie Shea Baldwin and Patrick Cummings were understudies who did some performances as Margo (the girl Billy keeps leaving behind) and Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Alice’s teen flame and baby daddy) in New York. They winningly return to those roles here, too.
For those who only know of Steve Martin as an actor or writer, the wild-and-crazy-guy was an accomplished banjo player early on. Besides the musical’s soundtrack, Martin and Edie Brickell (formerly with the New Bohemians and married to Paul Simon) have collaborated on two bluegrass albums, including the Grammy winning “Love Has Come For You.” The second album, “So Familiar,” included early versions of some “Bright Star” material.
An onstage band featuring banjos, fiddles, a bass, piano, other instruments, and even some hand-clapping/thigh-slapping adds atmosphere to the material. So does the rustic wood cabin framework in Eugene Lee’s versatile set that houses the ensemble and moves around the stage to serve as key characters’ homes.
“Bright Star“ featuring Cusack and Co. will continue to shine at the Ahmanson in Los Angeles until Nov. 19. Cusack is also committed to star in the show at San Francisco’s Curran Theater Nov. 28–Dec. 17 and in Salt Lake City Jan. 12-27. Whoever fills her shoes may be great too, but Cusack is the “Bright Star” to emerge from the show.
By Dyanne Weiss
Performance Oct. 20
Center Theatre Group
Los Angeles Times: Carmen Cusack, star of Edie Brickell and Steve Martin’s ‘Bright Star,’ finds her place in L.A.
Vanity Fair: Inside Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s Broadway Bluegrass Extravaganza
Photos by Craig Schwartz of Carmen Cusack and A.J. Shively in Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s “Bright Star,” which is at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, courtesy of the Center Theatre Group.