Warmed by the glow of nostalgia and ferried along by a catchy bluegrass score, Bright Star, the Steve Martin/Edie Brickell-powered musical at the Hobby Center through March 25, might be one of the most earnest shows on the landscape right now.
It’s an unabashedly tender and optimistic look at the nature of life, loss, and redemption, unfolding with optimistic gauziness. The story follows Alice Murphy, a sparky, intelligent North Carolina girl who, at 17, falls in love with Jimmy Ray Dobbs, who just happens to be the mayor’s son. Both of their worlds are turned upside down when a romantic tryst leads to an unexpected pregnancy. Fast forward 20 years and we find Alice as the well-respected, wry, and witty editor of the Asheville Southern Journal, a legendary literary magazine.
But this is also the story of World War II veteran and aspiring writer Billy Cane, who returns from the war and discovers his tiny hometown is nowhere to be a future Hemingway or Fitzgerald. So, the 23-year-old hustles on over to Asheville and virtually camps out on Alice’s doorstep. Sensing a talent in him, she gives him 10 bucks as encouragement and tells him to keep writing.
As the show moves back and forth from the 1940s to the 1920s, the connection between Alice and Billy unfolds, and what's to come won’t (or at least shouldn't) surprise the audience.
If the paper-thin plot is a detriment, it’s easily overlooked on account of the beautiful stage work. Eugene Lee’s vintage minimalist scene design and lighting designer Japhy Weideman’s gold and amber hues are a knockout combination. The slatted wood cabin, which serves mainly to house the on-stage band, spins and moves to cement this show’s Appalachian setting. Jane Greenwood’s costumes are by turns homey and city chic.
Audrey Cardwell carried the show as Alice, her rich, warm voice and rapier comedic timing serving her in good measure. She’s easily believable as the youthful, ambitious Alice and equally so as her more burnished, smarter-but-wiser older self. Cardwell's rendering of “If You Knew My Story,” the show’s opening number, is wistful and sincere, on a foundation of survival anthem. Henry Gottfried’s Billy is earnest and sweet, and he delivers the musical’s title number with the hopefulness reserved only for die-hard dreamers and aspiring artists. And Jeff Blumenkrantz and Kaitlyn Davidson play Daryl and Lucy, Alice’s assistants at the Journal who end up having altogether too much fun with Act Two’s “Another Round” bar scene.
Those familiar with Steve Martin’s Steep Canyon Rangers will recognize the bluegrass influence on the plucky score, which was nominated for a 2016 Tony Award. It’s by turns as toe-tapping as a down-home hoedown and as longing as a lonely country road doused in moonlight. If songs seem indistinguishable at times, it’s also easy to look away when numbers like “Whoa, Mama”—a sassy will-they-won’t-they (spoiler alert: they will)—are so obviously designed to elicit smiles. Other songs feel constructed atop the sanguine folksiness of a Mumford & Sons instrumental track.
That’s really the thing about Bright Star—it wants so much to not only please but be pleasant. Even its (much) darker tones—like the Act One finale where Jimmy Ray’s mayor daddy does the unthinkable—are washed away in the bright light this musical brings. As the musical meanders (and oh, does it meander—like fingers across banjo strings), it’s hard not to notice how quiet and lovely and kind this confection is amid a sea of jukebox biomusicals and big rock operas. Martin’s own wry observations about people keep the script from being overly saccharine, and the performances do shimmer.
Those wishing to enjoy a musical without making careful study of the music and lyrics first—or who just want to leave the theater humming—will be pleased, and likely find themselves singing the ebullient “Sun’s Gonna Shine.” Those looking for meatier fare may want to look elsewhere. Overall, though, Bright Star is a bright spot.
Thru March 25. Tickets from $40. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby St. 713-315-2525. More info and tickets at tuts.com.