When you put the names Steve Martin and Edie Brickell in the same sentence, my attention can be grasped pretty quickly. To most people, they may not be a team that would go together, but both are very experienced musicians whose talents have been on display for decades. Add to that the fact that they have put together an award-winning musical, and I am that much more intrigued. All of this culminates in “Bright Star,” currently touring the country and taking up shop at the Winspear Opera House in Dallas through June 24th.
Taking place in both the 1920s and 1940s, this is the tale of Alice Murphy (Audrey Cardwell), the editor of the Ashville Southern Journal, a literary magazine in North Carolina as well as Billy Cane (Henry Gottfried), a young man fresh back from the war who wants more than anything to be a writer and get away from his small town of Hayes Creek. As their paths cross, Alice’s story of love and loss from her own childhood lead to love, loss, and discovery that not only help shape her as an adult but also the associations she has with her co-workers and family as well.
This is another one of those stories that has to be described at a ten thousand foot level in order to not spoil any of its plot points that must be experienced without knowledge beforehand. That being said, this is a bit of an oddity for me to review mainly from a storytelling standpoint. Having Martin’s name attached to it gives a bit of a connotation that this is a lighthearted romp, and it is just about anything but that. Yes, there is some humor here (mostly reserved for the second act), but this production has some very dark overtones to it as it pertains to Southern traditions and values in the first half of the twentieth century. The second act is much stronger than the first as there is quite a bit of groundwork that is laid to foreshadow the climax and resolution to come (which is fairly predictable), but I found myself much more engaged after the intermission.
Let me be clear here: my disappointment level is mainly because of the material itself and is in no way a reflection on a very talented cast and crew that make the production run as smooth as glass. From a technical standpoint, everything moves into its proper place at its proper time like clockwork, including a rotating log cabin that serves both as a backdrop for multiple scenes and the housing for the live band, which is also sharp as a tack. Cardwell carries the weight of the production like a true professional in the same way Alice carries what she feels is the constant weight of the world on her shoulders, conveying each and every scene’s emotions to a tee and truly giving both the younger and current versions of Alice their own quirks and characteristics that make it very easy to distinguish between the two. There is also strong work here by Allison Briner-Dardenne as Mama Murphy who although has limited stage time, she makes the most of each and every note she hits.
There could be an argument made for a group of male counterparts that are not as strong as the females, but I wonder more if that is again because of the material placed in front of them. Jeff Austin has great stage presence as May Josiah Dobbs, the father of Alice’s girlhood crush that will go to extreme lengths to protect his son’s future and legacy, but the music he has to work with seems to hinder the true potential of his performance, while Patrick Cummings as the object of her affection also puts in serious work with solid chemistry as it pertains to Cardwell, but no real good meaty material to work with.
Even odder here for me is this: if I were just listening to the songs themselves on my iPod, I would thoroughly enjoy them, but when put into this production, most of the numbers just didn’t gel with the story itself. With the exception of “Another Round,” and “I Had a Vision” (both in the second act), it took me a while to settle in with the combination of song and presentation.
While I can say that this is by far not the worst production that I have seen in 2018, it is also not near the top either. I don’t feel that this would be a waste of time to see, but also do yourself a favor and don’t set the bar really high for it.