About a year and a half ago, I went to see Steve Martin and Edie Brickell perform with the Deep Canyon Rangers. It was a very enjoyable evening and cemented my budding interest in bluegrass music. So when I heard that Martin and Brickell were working on a Broadway musical, I was immediately on board and a little curious. I wasn’t really sure how a bluegrass musical would work or if there would be an audience for it on Broadway. I was disappointed when the very funny Hand to God failed to find its niche on the great white way and closed after less than a year and wondered if Bright Star would suffer the same fate. Hamilton has done a lot to shake up Broadway and open up the musical possibilities, but bluegrass is a tough sell for some people. Since I wasn’t sure what the shelf life would be for the musical, I decided to go see it as soon as possible; when the opportunity presented itself to see it during previews (and at a discounted price), I jumped at it. As usual, I dragged my “Broadway buddy” Amanda along for the ride, despite the fact I’ve never heard her express any interest in bluegrass. I didn’t really know anything about the musical other than the one song that I’d seen performed on The Tonight Show, which honestly hadn’t really blown me over. But I generally like to go into shows blind – I very rarely know much about the plot or any of the songs before going to a musical – so that I’ll be surprised and not have any expectations. I like letting the musical speak for itself. I had a moment of déjà vu walking into the theater since this was also where I saw Fish In the Dark. The more time that I spend going to Broadway, the more I wind up in the same theaters or seeing some of the same actors.
Bright Star isn’t going to be the next hot thing on Broadway; it’s a perfectly fine and enjoyable musical, but the story is fairly predictable and some of the songs are a little repetitive lyrically. The cast is great and the songs did get stuck in my head, but it didn’t leave me with the same feeling of exhilaration that I’ve had after seeing other shows. It’s charming and sweet, but it just doesn’t have a ton of depth. There are some twists and turns that I presume are supposed to be shocking or unexpected, but that I saw telegraphed from a mile away (though, based on the gasps from some of the audience, some people were not as good at seeing foreshadowing as I was). I liked Bright Star, but I wasn’t wowed by it. A solid first effort by Martin and Brickell, but it was just a little too safe and obvious for my tastes. I predict that it will have a decent run on Broadway, but won’t become a classic.
Bright Star is set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and takes place in the 1920s and 1940s. Billy Cane (A.J. Shively) is a soldier that has just returned home from WWII and who dreams of being a short story author. He hopes to get one of his stories published in the Asheville Southern Journal and sets out to do just that, leaving behind the hometown girl that is in love with him (Hannah Elless) and his recently widowed father (Stephen Bogardus). In order to get published, he must win over the no-nonsense editor Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack). Billy’s enthusiasm and optimism makes Alice think about her own youth and the painful secret that has made her the woman that she is today. Paul Alexander Nolan also stars as a man from Alice’s past. To say more would be to take away any element of surprise, though the first act ends on a note that is a bit shocking and definitely got the crowd murmuring during the intermission. I won’t spoil it, but when the lights came up, I turned to Amanda and said “that got dark quickly.”
Carmen Cusack really carries the show and makes the most of her Broadway debut; she effortlessly plays Alice both as a carefree young woman and the serious woman of letters. The transitions in time often happen abruptly, but her performance and the quick costume changes help center the story and prevent any confusion. She has a beautiful voice and provides most of the emotional depth to the show. The rest of the cast is also very good, though many of the characters don’t ever achieve being anything more than an archetype; a prime example of this is the role of Billy love interest back home, which is too under-baked for the audience to care much about one way or the other. The musical is way more interesting when it is taking place in the 1920s rather than the 1940s, mostly because the former means more time focused on Cusack’s Alice.
The songs in Bright Star are definitely catchy – I’ve caught myself singing them in my head on more than one occasion – but you can’t help noticing the simplicity of the lyrics in a few of them. Some songs repeat the same words over and over again, which doesn’t help add much substance to the musical. Maybe this is a part of bluegrass that I just never noticed before, but in the context of a show that is trying to tell a story the repetition is much more obvious. I’m still sure that I’ll buy the soundtrack, but I would have liked a little more complexity. The music was melodic and the band does a wonderful job throughout the show. All in all the songs are pleasant and put a smile on your face, but with a few exceptions aren’t all that memorable. They are like a confection – nice and sweet in the moment, but don’t stay with you all that long.
Bright Star was an agreeable, if not particularly transformative, way to spend an afternoon in New York. The cast lead my Carmen Cusack all do a fine job and the songs are nice in the moment, but it doesn’t add up to a musical that knocked my socks off. It was good, not great and marked a nice first attempt by Martin and Brickell. It could have had a story that was less predictable and a little more creativity with some of the lyrics, but I did have a nice time at the show. I’m glad that I saw it and while it wasn’t the most memorable show that I’ve ever seen, it was a more than agreeable way to spend 2.5 hours. If you like bluegrass I would definitely recommend checking it out. I don’t know what kind of staying power Bright Star will have, but I admire its attempts to bring bluegrass to Broadway, even if the execution fell just a little short.
Bright Star will make its Broadway debut on March 24th.