We go to a musical to be uplifted, stirred emotionally, and, most trickily, to embrace characters in situations where the only way their story can be satisfactorily told is to have their words augmented, even replaced, by song and dance. And we hope that this will all be accomplished with brilliant performances, stylish design, and creative staging.
On all counts, then, you would think that Bright Star, the musical written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell that first opened on Broadway in 2016 and is now sitting briefly in San Francisco as part of a national tour, would have been a big hit. It featured a star-making performance by Carmen Cusack as Alice Murphy, it had a tuneful score, imaginative design (part of the bluegrass band moves around on stage in a cottage structure that also serves as scenery), and clever staging by Walter Bobbie (director) and Josh Rhodes (choreographer). It even received generally positive reviews, both in San Diego – where it premiered at the Old Globe – and in New York. And yet, it closed after only 109 performances. In terms of awards, well, sometimes that’s all about timing. Cusack’s acclaimed performance earned her many nominations, including for a Tony award, but she was up against Cynthia Erivo, whose performance as Celie in the revival of The Color Purple was electrifying. And the show itself joined a list of musicals that probably wished they hadn’t been stuck competing against a little show called Hamilton, which deservedly swept every honor offered for live theatre that year.
I went to New York in 2016. Whenever I go, I like to plan my trip way in advance: the hotel gets booked by February, the theatre tickets purchased. My friend Alyssa was going, too, and she said we had to see Bright Star. So I bought a beautiful pair of tickets, eighth row center!
A month before the trip, I received word that the show was closing, and my tickets would need to be exchanged for something else. That replacement show turned out to be . . . not so good, and the whole Bright Star debacle was filed under “Opportunities Lost.”
Then, two months ago, Alyssa e-mailed me with the news that the show had been revived for a tour, starring Carmen Cusack herself, along with several of the original production’s stars, and would be in San Francisco just before my birthday. I guess we were destined to see that show together, and last night that is exactly what we did. As a result, folks, I can explain why the show died an early death on Broadway. Judging by the half empty house last night, the negative SF Chronicle review has done its trick, and a lot more people will miss out on this production. Yet I will say to those who didn’t see Bright Star in New York or who don’t want to see it on tour: “Too bad for you! You don’t know what you’re missing!”
Let’s get the sour stuff out of the way first. The reason the show failed in New York was the story, pure and simple. In a season where the history of the founding of our country was brilliantly rendered in hip-hop terms, where Alice Walker’s best seller The Color Purple was reimagined in ways that had audiences crying at the beginning, and where the Great White Way more accurately reflected our diverse nation with shows like Shuffle Along, Hamilton, and the play Eclipsed, a musical set in the American South in the first half of the 20th century that was oddly all white and which told a story so creakily melodramatic that audiences cheered the heroes and all but hissed the villains – that kind of show felt anachronistic in the 21st century.
For example, part of the plot – which you really don’t want to know too much about going in (and yet, how many people will ultimately see this? Will it have a life in community theatres?) – involves a baby born out of wedlock. Alice, the mother, is a poor girl, while her lover, Jimmy Ray, is the mayor’s son. If you think politicians today are an oily, evil bunch . . . well, they are . . . but Mayor Hobbs’ plans for that baby are so despicable that you almost see him twirling an invisible oily mustache as he schemes and then carries out a monstrous act. Much of this is relayed through one of the more unfortunate songs in Martin and Brickell’s score, called “Please Don’t Take Him,” where Alice pleads with her father not to let the Mayor drag her baby out of her hands and place him up for adoption:
- ALICE: Daddy! Don’t you let him!/Mama! Don’t let him!/You can’t take my boy!
- DADDY: Don’t be selfish/Let him go and help him/Leave behind a world of shame/If he’s ridiculed and they make fun of him at school/You’ll only have yourself to blame.
- ALICE: Please don’t take him.
- MAMA: He’s our grandson.
- ALICE: No! Don’t take him.
- MAMA: He’s our only one!
- ALICE: You can’t take my baby boy!
- MAYOR: I’m doing you a favor/You can thank me later/For making your life easier.
No performance, no matter how heartfelt, can eliminate the turgid melodrama from this moment. The Mayor then compounds his selfish act – horribly – and the first act is over! Alyssa turned to me with tears in her eyes – “Well, I didn’t expect that!” – and then we went out into the lobby for a chocolate bar.
Such a hackneyed dramatic device probably can’t sustain the longevity of a dramatic work – it sure didn’t here! – but one can’t dismiss Bright Star so easily. Because everything else about the performance I saw, at least, was mighty fine.
First, Carmen Cusack: she’s everything you want to see in a legend-making performance and more. She honors the material and elevates it when needed. I can’t imagine rooting for anyone else more when they sing, “You can’t take my baby boy!” The plot requires Alice not merely to age from a girl of sixteen to a woman of forty; Cusack has to flip back and forth from one age to the other. In one brilliant tour de force of a number (“Way Back in the Day”), we watch her transformation onstage from the rigid spinster she has become to the beautiful wild child she used to be.
This moment, and many others, is helped immeasurably by Rhodes’ choreography. When young Billy Kane (A.J. Shively, who originated the role and is just lovely in it) decides to journey to Asheville to attempt to sell the stories he wrote while fighting overseas, his entire journey, hitchhiking in various cars, riding buses and trains, is depicted with a dancing ensemble and a minimum of props. When bookstore clerk Margo Crawford (a luminous Maddie Shea Baldwin) sings of her secret love for Billy (“Asheville”), her yearning heart is brought to life through the company’s bursts of movement.
When the script focuses on Billy and Margo or on Alice, both in her present life as the editor of the Asheville Southern Journal, a prestigious literary magazine, or in her youth as she dallies with the handsome Jimmy Ray (Patrick Cummings, a most excellent singer), it does just fine. Older Alice works with two assistants, Daryl (Jeff Blumenkrantz, who originated the role) and Lucy (I saw a fine understudy, Alessa Neeck), and they capture the acerbic combination of pessimism mixed with the hope that one day they will find – or, in Daryl’s case, be – the next Thomas Wolfe.
And it isn’t that the out and out villainy of some of the characters, including the aforementioned Mayor (Jeff Austin) isn’t well-played. It just feels sort of hackneyed. But I suppose things have to get darker before the dawn so that the optimism of Bright Star can work its magic on the characters and the audience. Songs like those that open both acts, “If You Knew My Story” and “Sun Is Gonna Shine”, the exuberant debaucherie of “Another Round” and, most especially, Cusack’s eleven o’clock showstopper, “At Long Last” brought the audience nearly to their feet, as did the bluegrass orchestra whenever they played. How fitting that these musicians should be onstage in the center of the action; it makes total sense that these down home folk would depend on music to lift their spirits in the darkest of times.
Bright Star plays at the Curran through December 17. See it for Cusack’s performance (ably matched by the rest of the sterling cast). See it for the uplift of its message, its music and its spirit, for the excellent presentation, and just to have a chance to sit in that beautiful Curran Theatre again! Pay no attention to that grumpy Steven Winn at the Chronicle. There was a reason for this show to be revived on tour. How lucky that I got a second chance to see it!