There is a new phenomenon happening on Broadway this season. Being able to walk into a musical and have no idea where the story is going because...it's original and not based on a film or book. That's one of the big joys of seeing Bright Star playing at the Cort Theatre. With a story idea by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell after they collaborated on their 2014 Grammy winning album Love Has Come for You, Martin wrote the book for the musical and together they wrote the music and lyrics for this Southern tale of love, hope, and perseverance.
Many know Steve Martin as an actor, but his love of bluegrass is evident in this toe-tapping score where we watch the band on stage as their musical emotion adds to the overall feel of this show. At first it had shades of the musical Big River (and my theater partner and I swore we heard a motif from Cats a few times), but that quickly was gone as it took on a life of its own: new, fresh and paying no attention to what many believe to be the standard ways of writing musical theater. I was pulled into the lushness, the exuberance and the care in which you feel every actor, performer, and creative member of this show are working on this piece. It's a small flower that blossoms as the story pulls back layers sharing more and more. Set in the 1920s & 1940s, Bright Star tells two stories that intertwine and connect as we go back and forth. A young man returns from WWII and wants so desperately to be a writer that he meets a successful literary editor and off we go. Doesn't sound like a big Broadway musical, but the less you know of the story; the more enjoyment you will find in discovering it first hand.
Now I must stop and sing the praises of Carmen Cusack making her Broadway debut as that literary editor Alice Murphy and say what a star she is. A voice that killed me. Her tone, belt, mix - everything I enjoy in a female singer. She colors her voice for this role with an ache and a quiver that would resonate through the Appalachian mountains. She switches from young as an adorable, care-free Loretta Lynn type to a mature, reserved, guarded woman (that reminded me a little of the cutting Dixie Carter as Julia Sugerbaker). She transforms physically as she goes back and forth and absolutely feels every moment of this story - and we see it all in her eyes. (I didn't realize until afterwards when talking to a friend that I saw Ms. Cusack off-broadway as the gym teacher in the revival of Carrie.) I do believe Broadway will be seeing MUCH more of her in the future.
As the boy that steals her heart, Paul Alexander Nolan has the voice that any male singer longs to have. I can't believe this is the same man I saw last spring in Doctor Zhivago as he knows how to escape into a character. From stern Russian then to Southern gentleman now, he is an incredible actor with so much range - the two of them together are absolutely beautiful to watch.
The rest of the wonderful cast includes performers I've loved watching through the years (Stephen Bogardus, Dee Hoty, Emily Padgett, Jeff Blmenkrantz, Stephen Lee Anderson, Michael Mulheren) along with some I'm happy to see for the first time such as A.J. Shivley and Hannah Elless. Everyone in this show seems to know they are experiencing something very unique with this production and it shows in those performances.
The show has been worked on at the Old Globe in San Diego and at the Kennedy Center this past fall and has gone through many changes (as I read up on it after seeing it). Characters were cut and changes made. There are still flaws in the book: the lyrics are sometimes too simple and stay truer to country music story-telling instead of what we're used to in a Broadway musical (and for this BMI Musical Theater writer - the imperfect rhymes would bother my ear occasionally), and I wish the big 11 o'clock number had more depth to the lyrics that matched the joyous moment happening on stage. But there is so much that makes up for those shortcomings that I found it beautiful and powerful and an honor to get to witness. Walter Bobbie as director and Josh Rhodes as choreographer have done an awesome job with this piece so that it moves from period to period stunningly; yet never over the top. Even the set moves are so fluid as we whisk in and out of periods and locations. The ensemble is used as a greek chorus in a way that Bridges of Madison County wishes would have worked for them. Here, it works wonderfully.
Do I wish the flaws could have been addressed prior to coming to Broadway? Of course, but only because I'm afraid of how critics may treat this piece once it opens. However, I applaud this creative team for doing something different. Much like Hamilton has taken Broadway into a new territory, and the musical Once didn't follow the usual convention, Bright Star gives audiences something different from the norm. That makes the 2015-2016 season very exciting! Last summer, I started this new 'season' with a show that played downtown at the seaport. I called it a theatrical musical experience because they too were creating art outside the norm. Bravo to those that continue to challenge us and not feed us the tried and true over and over. Either on stage or on film, I'm all for those that think outside the box, color outside the lines, and in doing so - create beautiful gems that we get to share.
Go the Cort Theatre to see one of those gems and as a bonus, see a rising star shine so brightly on that stage you'll leave remembering the name Carmen Cusack.