'Bright Star' At The Curran Is A Smart And Moving Bluegrass Folk Tale
by Jay Barmann
The moment Carmen Cusack first appears in the doorway of a wooden shack, backed by small bluegrass band tucked inside the shack at center stage in Bright Star, it's clear that this new musical by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell is both rooted in the sounds of Americana, and in the raw emotion of one Southern woman with a country singer's belt and twang. "If you knew my story, you'd have a hard time believing me," she sings. "Joy and sorrow never last. I'll die trying not to live in the past." Those two lines, as it turns out, pretty well sum up the entire arc of Bright Star, which earned Tony nominations for Cusack and the beautifully staged production by director Walter Bobbie. And the story of Alice Murphy, a Southern woman whose fate is both helped and hurt by convention-bound society that has long made victims of its women, feels like an elemental and operatic one that is as familiar as it is fresh.
In bringing Bright Star to San Francisco for its current three-week run at The Curran, producer Carole Shorenstein Hayes calls it a "musical love letter to hope and resilience [that] wears its heart right on its gingham sleeve." And the show feels like a love letter to bluegrass music as well, one that Martin and Brickell crafted perhaps primarily as a way to tell a redemptive American story with classically tragic tropes that gives a folk-opera platform to this very American music.
Without disclosing too many spoilers, I'll just explain that the story of Bright Star, which Martin and Brickell crafted together (Martin is credited with the music and book, while Brickell is credited with music and lyrics, and she has cagily said in interviews that the story is based loosely on a true one) bounces back and forth, particularly in Act 1, between 1946 and 1923, when the character of Alice (Cusack) is 38 and 16, respectively. We get introduced to Alice as a shrewd and sharp-tongued editor-in-chief of a prominent southern literary magazine, who, we're told, once made Ernest Hemingway cry. But it's after the play rewinds 23 years to show us the teenage Alice that we understand she was not always so intimidating. Clearly too smart for the small town of Zebulon into which she was born, Alice falls for the handsome 20-year-old son of the mayor, Jimmy Ray (Patrick Cummings, who played the role on Broadway), and soon ends up pregnant -- a fact that her Bible-thumping father and Jimmy Ray's business-minded dad are equally unhappy about. Ultimately forced to give up her baby to adoption and sent away to college, Alice spends years funneling her heartbreak into promoting the work of Southern writers, and searching in vain for a record of where her lost son ended up.
A parallel plot line centers on young Billy Cane (played by the affable and vocally talented AJ Shively, who got a Drama Desk nomination for the role on Broadway), freshly returned from World War II in 1946 and eager to make a name for himself as a writer as soon as possible. Having sent stories home during the war to his childhood friend, bookstore clerk Margo (Maddie Shea Baldwin), Billy heads straight to Asheville to the same magazine run by Alice to deliver them for publication, by hand. Margo, of course, has loved Billy since childhood and waits patiently for him to see her in a new light. But Billy, temporarily blind to Margo's affections, instead moves out of their small town to be closer to the action in Asheville, where he befriends Lucy, one of Alice's editorial staff, a modern single gal who hilariously tries to show Billy a good time in the "big city" by way of too many sloe gin fizzes.
Throughout the show, a twelve-person ensemble adds color and energy to almost every scene, helped by Josh Rhodes's lively choreography and a beautifully spare set design by Eugene Lee.
True to form for a piece of American musical theater, the show ties up neatly and ends very happily for everyone, but it's not without its subtleties. The characters of Lucy and her co-editor at the magazine Daryl (played, as it was on Broadway, with restrained wit by Jeff Blumenkrantz) are each allowed moments to show themselves as unique humans more than supporting characters like these often are. And even in moments that veer toward the cliches of classic Hollywood melodrama, Martin's script has a way of surprising us in both funny and idiosyncratic ways.
It's Cusack, though, who carries this show and does its most impressive heavily lifting. She shifts seamlessly between her character's erect, erudite older self and her rebellious and flirty younger self, and in several moments shows off the emotive vocal chops of some of the best in the business, with, at turns, the blues-y authenticity of Bonnie Raitt and the raw power of Idina Menzel.
If Bright Star is short on anything, it's truly catchy, hummable numbers. While delightful from start to finish, Martin and Brickell's score is packed with nice melodies and powerful harmonic moments, the finest of which is the song "Sun Is Gonna Shine" that opens Act 2. It's a song that exemplifies the show's relentless, infectious optimism, which is an emotion we could all use regular helpings of, this year of all years.
Bright Star plays through December 17 at the Curran. Tickets available here or via the Today Tix app.