Billy Cane is home from World War II. He wants to follow his “bright star” and write for the prestigious Asheville Southern Journal. The editor, Alice Murphy, works with the Southern Renaissance headliners: Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers. She sees promise in Billy and tells him to pen a “sweeping tale of pain and redemption.”
Bright Star, the Steve Martin/Edie Brickell musical, wants to be just such a tale. The world premiere at the Old Globe, however, is too sweeping. It tries to honor so many formal duties they dull the pain.
The concept’s a stretch for musicals: a bluegrass/folk/country — i.e., un-Broadway — score, an old-fashioned Southern legend, and a double-plot structure.
The latter’s the kicker. Opening scenes follow Billy, then they switch, in what first seems like a digression, to Alice’s youth and the tragedy that sapped her soul. In effect, for a good 40 minutes, Bright Star runs on two tracks with no apparent connection. Here and elsewhere director Walter Robbie does a brilliant job of moving things along: props appear, scenes morph, the performers flow like a river. But these choices are all visual. The book has no viable engine to drive it forward.
Also, where’s Steve Martin? Where’s the hyper-talented life of the party whose antics could resurrect a dirge? They appear in brief touches and throwaways. (Billy’s mother has the statue of an angel on her grave; but she didn’t like statues of angels.) Along with the two plot trains running, the book must combat an inevitable expectation: When’re the Blue Ridge Mountains — of 1923–’24 and 1945–’46 — gonna get a “wild and crazy” rinse? There should be some way of saying, early, that the story, not Steve, is the bright star.
When mayor Josiah Dobbs shows up, like Big Daddy on steroids, the tone shifts from wistful homespun to bias and brimstone. Although Wayne Duvall doesn’t cartoon him, the mayor’s a stock, boo-hiss figure: the blunt naysayer without whom life would be a peach. And, given that the musical is based on an actual, horrific event, he might have been. But his appearance is so abrupt, and his song “A Man’s Gotta Do” is so calculatedly evil, the heretofore delicate piece goes haywire.
As if aware that the first-act curtain was a mite Nightmare and her Ninefold, Act Two begins with the kind of hopeful “Climb Every Mountain” anthem that usually ends a musical. “Sun’s Gonna Shine,” an upbeat, beautifully choral number has take-home, sing-along value. But what’s it doing at the top of Act Two? Instead of rebuilding tension, the song diffuses it.
Bright Star’s small-town scope, warm-hearted feel, and often haunting, down-home tunes make it defiantly different from today’s Broadway musicals. The show’s almost devoid of the obvious “please love us” cues so prevalent on the Great White Way. In fact, it’s so against the grain, so allergic to things Boffo, it rarely gives the audience a chance to respond. Except for the evil mayor, the rises and falls, and the spaces between, stay on a fairly even plane.
Some songs need emotional expansion. When Jimmy Ray learns the fate of his infant child, you’d think he’d rip the rear wall apart, brick by brick. Instead, Wayne Alan Wilcox sings an insipid “Heartbreaker” (“How could she ever love me now? Ooh, Heartache!”).
Other songs don’t fit in the narrative, but you’re glad they’re there. The best of these, “Another Round,” is a foot-stomping hoot: “Muscadine wine made me feel so fine/ I like corn liquor, it hits me quicker.” Libby Winters gets to cut loose as Dora. But the tragedy made Dora an alcoholic.
The production brought in one of American theater’s major lights. I’ve seen Eugene Lee’s work at the Dallas Theatre Center and at Trinity Rep in Rhode Island. He loves to put spectators inside his designs. On the Old Globe’s proscenium stage, with just a few fewer props, Lee’s “set” would be perfect for Our Town. Amid the minimalism, a rustic cabin floats around, changing scenes and transporting what must be five of the best bluegrass/folk/country musicians in the land. The “On-Stage Band,” along with four others just as good off-, resounds like a single instrument purely played.
Carmen Cusack’s so sharp and sure as Alice, one wishes she had more to do (and we could see from her behavior why Alice “once made Ernest Hemingway cry”; and could react long and deep, when she gets the awful news, before breaking onto song). That goes for the other double-plot leads: Billy (A.J. Shively), Margo (Hannah Elless), and Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Wayne Alan Wilcox) are pretty much generic folks characterized by an attribute or two.
To reference Our Town is probably too Yankee for this tale of Southern woe. But the book would benefit from the kind of fine-tuned streamlining in Wilder’s play and Eugene Lee’s set. The music’s there, in fluid abundance, but the book unfolds like one of those 200-word, periodic German sentences where the meaning comes clear only with the last word. Problem is, once one figures out where Bright Star is headed, the conclusion’s foregone long before it ends.
1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park
Bright Star, music by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, lyrics by Brickell, book by Martin
Old Globe Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park
Directed by Walter Bobbie; cast: A.J. Shively, Stephen Bogardus, Jeff Hiller, Kate Loprest, Carmen Cusack, Wayne Alan Wilcox, Stephen Lee Anderson, Patti Cohenour, Libby Winters, Wayne Duvall, Hannah Elles; scenic design, Eugene Lee; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Japhy Weideman; sound, Nevin Steinberg; musical supervisor, Peter Asher; musical director, Rob Berman; choreographer, Josh Rhodes
Playing through November 2: Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-234-5623. theoldglobe.org