Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Review: Steve Martin and Edie Brickell's Luminous BRIGHT STAR

Wayne Alan Wilcox and Carmen Cusack. Photos by Joan Marcus.

What I found so utterly engaging about the world premiere of Steve Martin and Edie Brickell's new musical Bright Star is its complete unpretentiousness. Certainly its musical style -- American bluegrass with a heaping helping of laid-back mountain charm -- has the kind of lilting homespun ease that feels like you're listening to the neighborhood jug band on mama's back porch, and there's something oddly comforting about that.

The story is original, though inspired by an actual event, and moves back and forth between the end of World War II and 1923. You can google "Iron Mountain Baby" if you want to eliminate the shock you'll inevitably feel as Act I reveals its secrets but I recommend letting the musical's surprises play out naturally to fully appreciate the turns in the narrative. It contains a great deal of the bigness of life - heartache, hope, optimism, despair - yet it never forgets that its true center is the intimacy of the small moments.

It's about coming home and the coincidences that make that journey possible, the unexpected events that heal old wounds, and the inevitable forces that guide us on our way. It's about two people; a young soldier seeking his fortune after the war and a woman whose life didn't turn out the way she planned. When fate brings them together, everything they know to be true will change and old ghosts will finally be put to rest in a way neither of them could ever have predicted.

The cast is magnificent, led by a captivating Carmen Cusack as Alice Murphy, the newspaper editor who catches Billy Cane (extremely likable A. J. Shively), the young soldier who comes to her looking for a job as a writer, in a lie. The Old Globe stage is her playground and she owns it completely with an infinitely rich, full, and layered performance that is the very heart and soul of the piece. Her voice wraps around Martin's melodies in a magical way bringing the flavor of this particular brand of music to life with such joy that if for no other reason than to see her, you must see this musical.

"Go find a heartbreak and write about it," is Alice's advice to Billy about how to find his authentic voice as a writer. Hers concerns her childhood sweetheart, Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Wayne Alan Wilcox), whose father, Mayor Dobbs (Wayne Duvall), had more than a little to say about the validity of their budding romance when they were teens. Duvall's realistic performance drew boos more than once from the audience for his actions in the show and Wilcox's portrayal of the young romantic is an engaging one. Stephen Lee Anderson and Stephen Bogardus take on the father roles, Alice's and Billy's respectively, two salt of the earth men doing the best they can for their children.

And all the while, in and around these characters and their stories is the music; this luscious, emotionally-wrought, foot-stomping, bright, haunting music. Five onstage musicians who glide on a revolving cabin moved by the actors, and four offstage musicians, create a living, breathing character with the score that is as alive as any of the bodies walking across the stage. August Eriksmoen's orchestrations and Rob Berman's musical direction and vocal arrangements will make you fall in love with the sound of the Blue Ridge Mountains captured here with such purity. The songs do land differently on the ear than what you may be used to, and it can take a moment to adjust to the way the stresses of Brickell's lyrics live within the musical phrases, but it is characteristic of the style and its nuances are deeply felt.

Director Walter Bobbie and choreographer Josh Rhodes emphasize those nuances by adding clogging and slapping to the more traditional community-driven dance moves (accompanied by the party music of a spoon player, a mouth harp, and a jug player), and they also use the sound of the movements themselves to intensify the dramatic action. Often it is a visual subtext to a number, like the anger in "Firmer Hand," an accusatory song that labels Alice the black sheep of the family accompanied by stomps and slaps as punctuation to the lyric.

In another more beautiful background staging, couples pair off in a gentle waltz behind Alice and Jimmy Ray when he asks her to marry him. And in yet another completely devastating moment of separation, the lone female fiddle player is isolated from the rest of the orchestra and placed in a chair with her back to the audience while she plays, which pointedly parallels what is happening to Alice.

Simplicity and inventiveness in the lighting, scenic design and costumes create uniquely transparent stage magic. We watch as a smart 1940's business suit transitions within seconds to a young girl's dress like a dance, and the clock turns back twenty years. An optical illusion takes place as the bare brick wall of the theater, transformed by lighting, becomes the mountains of North Carolina as a white cutout drops from above, making you gasp at how easily it achieves its effect. And the fragile sounds of a country evening, almost imperceptible but curiously satisfying, coax you down a backwoods road. These are the kinds of details that create an unforgettable signature.

In 2013 Martin and Brickell collaborated on a CD of 13 songs, "Love Has Come For You" which was the genesis for what would later become this musical. Of the nearly twenty songs in the show, "Sun's Gonna Shine" was the first Martin and Brickell wrote together and one of the only two that would eventually remain in the show. Brickell wrote the lyrics and melodies to Martin's music and before long he began to see characters in their songs and a story that wouldn't stay quiet.

Some streamlining of the supporting characters and their relationships to the main stories is sure to come but what exists now is a jewel of an experience that is unique and quite special. See it now before it goes to Broadway because this one surely has a ticket on an easttbound train in its future.

The cast of Bright Star

Carmen Cusack and (from left) Scott Wakefield and Joe Jung
and the orchestra of Bright Star

Left: Wayne Alan Wilcox and Carmen Cusack. Right: A.J. Shively

L-R: Kate Loprest, Jeff Hiller and Carmen Cusack

Stephen Lee Anderson and Carmen Cusack

Hannah Elless

A.J. Shively and Stephen Bogardus

Through November 2, 2014
The Old Globe
1363 Old Globe Way,

San Diego, CA 92101

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