Broadway Series South and the North Carolina Theatre‘s April 17-22 presentation of the touring version of Bright Star: A New Musical by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell is a lovely, simply told tale, full of real emotions, gorgeous bluegrass music, amazing dancing, and lots of heart. Even with the blind eye to details, the musical sails through with a gorgeous score, thigh-slapping comic interludes, exciting choreography, and wonderful character performances. Bluegrass on Broadway is an exciting change-of-pace, and the musical’s more lyrically complex emotional ballads and roaring good-time songs are definitely Broadway-level offerings that keep their musical soul.
Set in the mountains near Asheville, North Carolina, and cleverly told simultaneously in 1923 and 1945, Bright Star opens with a woman named Alice Murphy (Audrey Cardwell), singing the opening number about “If we knew her story.” Her gorgeous voice is perfect for the story and for the strong, vivacious character of Alice Murphy. After the first number, we then see Billy Cane (Henry Gottfried) returning from WWII. He’s a little too chipper to be returning from fighting a war; but since he’s home to finally see family, it’s forgivable.
Billy learns his mother has passed while he was overseas. It’s a heartbreaking moment, and told well through the song, if a little repetitive. Everything does have a Rodgers & Hammerstein feel. The music is beautiful, and clearly there to help move the tale along. But there are no truly memorable, show-stopping songs. That’s also not the nature of the piece.
The lyrics are often simple and receptive, almost opera-like; and as the show goes along, they get all the more simple. Billy resolves to continue writing, and goes to Asheville, determined to be published. This is where we meet Alice Murphy again, although she is unrecognizable as the older, accomplished Ms. Murphy of the Asheville Southern Journal. Audrey Cardwell is a standout, seamlessly taking us from her 16-year-old self to her older and much-less-happy but professionally exceptional self.
Other great performances include the employees at the Asheville Southern Journal, Darryl Ames and Lucy Grant, played by Jeff Blumenkrantz and Kaitlyn Davidson. They have excellent comedic timing and get a fair share of the Steve Martin-style humor that I was hoping to see. They are a delightful pause in the story to sing and dance about going out drinking in 1945. Maybe this was made part of the story, because Prohibition ended about 12 years prior in North Carolina, but was still new back in 1923.
Eugene Lee’s set is very atmospheric, with mountains in the background and a delightful train running across the stage on an elevated platform. It does much to be delightfully reminiscent of the times. The homestead house is the heart of the set. It’s moved all around the stage, setting up different scenes; and it also houses the amazing band. At the top of Act 2, the audience is treated to a mini-jam session by the band before the story continues.
The story reveals how these two time periods are linked; and after surviving violent and heartbreaking circumstances, optimism and hope are rewarded, albeit almost too neatly, making the ending happy a little hollow. “Bright Star” itself is never really defined, nor explained. The musical seems to be more concerned with emotional delivery and the beautiful bluegrass music than details.
It’s my opinion that this vague hope and faith that courses through the show, and the trademark Steve Martin optimism is, in fact, the titular “Bright Star” of the show. Alice Murphy, however, in her 1923 days, makes excellent points about how we need more voices from Appalachia telling their own stories. It’s a point that the musical makes twice and, in reality, is actually still needed! It is lovely to hear about the University of North Carolina System, because it’s through this state’s incredible commitment to public education in 1789 through the 1940s that we have such an excellent accessible school system today.
Bright Star, which was written by two exceptional musicians from Texas and not North Carolina, has that feeling of being removed. Steve Martin and Edie Brickell are both experts of their craft, brilliant in their art, and meticulous researchers. Perhaps, that’s why for someone in the South to fully enjoy this musical, s/he has to stop thinking a little bit and just enjoy hearing the names of neighboring towns and locations. Brickell and Martin made up much, but the story itself comes from a song based on a true event — a folk song about that event called “The Iron Mountain Baby.” In true Steve Martin-style, it’s a story with extremely dark themes, but wrapped in a warm blanket of “It’s going to be okay.”
Even though it’s exciting to see North Carolina stories reenacted on Broadway, and this is a wonderful production, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that it is a play set between 1923 and 1946 in North Carolina that features an all-white cast. It’s hard for anyone who knows about North Carolina’s history not be a little put off by this. Even when the lens of “This story is just about these specific people” is used, even if you say, “Well, it was written in 2013,” today the show’s lack of Black characters is jarring.
In fact, it was during this period in N.C. history — around 1931 — that the Black population was recovering from disenfranchisement after the Reconstruction era ended and regaining voter representation in Raleigh. So, there could’ve been a more multicultural picture painted of these mountain towns and budding cities.
So, even though bluegrass’ origins stem from Irish, Scottish, and English settlers that brought their music with them, and from tunes that they used to play and sing about their daily lives in the New World, which then spread throughout the South, it was the more popular of the bluegrass bands that incorporated elements of jazz and gospel and other Black music traditions into their music. This fusion bluegrass debuted at the Grand Ole Opry in 1939 (right in the middle of this story). So, in this fictional tale, based on a song written in 1902, there could’ve been Black representation in the cast and the story to anchor it to the real world.
Dream-like history fables like this often cement false images of the past. Although they are lovely in their own right, they can be tone-deaf to modern concerns, and can ultimately do more harm then good. Even so, Bright Star is well-worth seeing. But it could’ve been better if it were more steeped in the history of its setting and more cognizant of the diverse citizenry who made it.
SECOND OPINION: April 18th Raleigh, NC BroadwayWorld.com Raleigh review by Jeffrey Kare: https://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/BWW-Review-BRIGHT-STAR-National-Tour-at-North-Carolina-Theatre-20180418; April 13th Raleigh, NC News & Observer preview by David Menconi: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/article208473209.html and April 8th mini-preview by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/article206900694.html; and April 11th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/arts/archives/2018/04/15/though-it-perplexed-new-york-steve-martin-and-edie-brickells-appalachian-musical-bright-star-should-fare-well-here and April 4th mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/bright-star/Event?oid=12789056. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the April 18th Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2018/04/steve-martin-and-edie-brickells-new-musical-bright-star-will-play-raleigh-memorial-auditorium-on-april-17-22/.)
Broadway Series South and the North Carolina Theatre present BRIGHT STAR: A NEW MUSICAL at 7:30 p.m. April 18-20 and 2 and 7:30 p.m. April 21 and 22 in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601.
Duke Energy Center Box Office: 919-996-8700 or email@example.com (information only).
BSS GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919-996-8707, firstname.lastname@example.org, or http://www.dukeenergycenterraleigh.com/broadway-series-south/group-sales.
NCT Box Office: 919-831-6941, ext. 6944, or http://www.nctheatre.com/tickets/season-tickets.
Ticketmaster: 800-745-3000 or https://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/115203/2340418.
VIDEO PREVIEW: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCetUq3Pevl1_kJKF-tq4d5w.
THE TOUR: http://brightstarmusical.com/, https://www.ibdb.com/tour-production/bright-star-516406 https://www.facebook.com/BrightStarBway/, https://twitter.com/BrightStarBway, and https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCetUq3Pevl1_kJKF-tq4d5w.
THE TOUR CAST & CREATIVE TEAM: http://brightstarmusical.com/cast.php.
2018 BSS SEASON: http://www.dukeenergycenterraleigh.com/broadway-series-south.
North Carolina Theatre: http://www.nctheatre.com/, https://www.facebook.com/nctheatre, https://twitter.com/nctheatre, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Carolina_Theatre, and http://www.youtube.com/user/nctheatre.
NCT BLOG (Stage Notes): http://www.nctheatre.com/stage-notes.
2017-18 NCT SEASON: https://nctheatre.com/show-season/201718-season.
NOTE: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 2 p.m. Saturday, April 21st, performance.
Bright Star: A New Musical (2014 San Diego and 2016 Broadway musical): http://brightstarmusical.com/ (official website), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/bright-star-503621 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.facebook.com/BrightStarBway/ (Facebook page), https://twitter.com/BrightStarBway/ (Twitter page), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bright_Star_(musical) (Wikipedia).
Steve Martin (music, book, and story): http://www.stevemartin.com/ (official website), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/steve-martin-95761 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000188/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Martin (Wikipedia).
Edie Brickell (music, book, and story): http://ediebrickell.com/ (official website), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/edie-brickell-503624 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0108567/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edie_Brickell (Wikipedia).
Diana Cameron McQueen of Raleigh, NC is an actor working in the Triangle area and beyond. She is a lifelong theatergoer, which she credits as her real theater education. She is an alumna of Enloe High School in Raleigh and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG). After returning to Raleigh in 2012, she debuted as an actor in the area. McQueen is mostly known for her performances as Vanda in Venus in Fur (2015) at Raleigh Little Theatre and as Queen Elizabeth I in The Lost Colony (2013-14) in Manteo, NC; and she most recently starred as Louise in The Underpants at Theatre in the Park in Raleigh. She’s passionate about and advocates for diversity and representation in media. McQueen lives with two very lovable cats, Odin and Aurelia. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.