Bright Star, the concluding production of N.C. State University Theatre’s TheatreFest 2019, is a charming bluegrass musical, with music, book, and story by Steve Martin, and music, lyrics, and story Edie Brickell. Set here in North Carolina in the mid-1940s (with flashbacks to the early-1920s), Bright Star tells two very poignant and moving stories — that of an aspiring young writer returning from serving as a soldier in World War II to find that his mother has passed away, and that of a successful literary editor who, in the past, had suffered a tragic, life-altering loss. Part love-story, part coming-of-age-story, and full of spirited, infectious song and lively dance, this unique piece is hands-down the best musical that I have attended for quite some time.
With a cast of 18 talented actor/singer/dancers, director Rachel Klem presents the story in first-rate fashion. Musical director Diane Petteway (who also plays piano in the 12-piece band) and choreographer Morgan Piner (who also appears in the role of Lucy) add the highly-energized song-and-dance elements to these stories that gently draw us back-and-forth through two time periods and across the state.
The first character we meet is 1940s’ Alice Murphy (a charismatic Tina Morris-Anderson) who piques our interest with the heartfelt “If You Knew My Story.” 1920s’ Alice (a spunky Aysia Slade) is every bit as endearing, and both keep us captivated with their melodious voices as they weave Alice’s tale of finding success and happiness in spite of the rough roads she has travelled and the set-backs she has encountered.
We meet the other central character (and his father) with the next number: “She’s Gone,” a duet performed by Benaiah Barnes (as Billy Cane) and David Burney (as Daddy Cane) in which a father reluctantly tells his son about his mother’s passing. Sharing this bittersweet reunion, the two display a touching father-son relationship. And we learn more about Billy’s hopes and dreams as he sings “Bright Star.”
The stories of these two converge when Billy moves to the mountains to continue his writing and to try to get his stories published by The Asheville Southern Journal (of which Alice is the editor).
With “Way Back in the Day,” Alice draws us into the past where we meet 1920s’ Alice and her love interest Jimmy Ray Dobbs (an upbeat Chris Inhulsen). (Daryl Ray Carlisle plays the haunted 1940s’ Jimmy Ray, who remains unobtrusively in the background for the first part of the play.)
The blossoming relationship between Alice and Jimmy Ray does not have the approval of Jimmy Ray’s father, Mayor Josiah Dobbs (played by Danny Norris with a deliciously stern, authoritarian, and inflexible demeanor). Indeed, it is with Mayor’s song “A Man’s Gotta Do” and its reprise that we encounter the event(s) that set the tragic wheels in motion.
The entire supporting cast turn in strong performances. Especially delightful are Cal Bumgardner and Morgan Piner as Alice’s assistants Daryl and Lucy.
Scenic designer Jayme Mellema has supplied a stylized backdrop that suggest mountains capped by clouds and has dotted the area between them with period-specific lanterns.
Designing costumes, hair, and makeup, Laura J. Parker has appropriately individualized every one of the characters in their time-and-place.
In addition to providing first-rate lighting verisimilitude, designer Joshua Reaves has pulled out all the stops with some magical special lighting effects as he (among other things) helps actors simulate riding in a car, a bus, and a train. And a slow-motion sequence at the end of the first act is accentuated by lighting effects.
- The one-two punch of the blocking and the lighting when 1940s’ Alice and Billy Ray look back on their 1920s’ selves.
- The sound effect of the “door” to a certain book store.
- The nearly hypnotic quality of the various angles of the floorboards.
- The similarity between the costumes of the two Alices.
- The creative way that all of the actors are kept on stage throughout the show without ever becoming obtrusive.
- The decision to distance a certain “villain” and his “henchman” from the rest of the cast for the final tableau.
At the risk of sounding overly enthusiastic, I would like to declare TheatreFEST 2019’s Bright Star a “must-see” production, and the entire sell-out opening night crowd expressed a similar opinion by means of a long, thunderous (and vocal) ovation.
N.C. State University Theatre presents BRIGHT STAR at 7:30 p.m. June 15, 2 p.m. June 16, 7:30 p.m. June 20 and 21, 2 and 7:30 p.m. June 22, and in the 2 p.m. June 23Titmus Theatre in Frank Thompson Hall, 2241 E. Dunn Ave., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607, on the NCSU campus, presented as part of TheatreFEST 2019.
TICKETS: $29.99 ($8 NCSU students, $19 nn-NCSU students, $27.99 NCSU faculty and staff and seniors 60+).
BOX OFFICE: 919-515-1100 or https://purchase.tickets.com/buy/TicketPurchase?organ_val=22089&event_val=STAR.
SHOW: https://theatre.arts.ncsu.edu/2018-19-season/bright-star/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/383303495849679/.
THEATREFEST 2019: https://theatre.arts.ncsu.edu/event/theatrefest-2019/.
PRESENTER: https://theatre.arts.ncsu.edu/, https://www.facebook.com/ncstateuniversitytheatre, and https://twitter.com/ncsutheatre.
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).
Rachel A. Klem (Durham, NC director and acting coach and instructor): https://theatre.arts.ncsu.edu/about/staff/ (NCSU faculty bio).
REVIEWER: Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.