What happens when you take one Iconic Actor-Comedian like Steve Martin, A Grammy-Winning Folk-Rock Musician like Edie Brickell, mix-in one incredibly moving story of faith, family and fate, and set it all to rip-roaring Blue-Grass inspired score that ranks among the most unique and vivacious ever written for a Broadway show? You get “Bright Star”—the Tony-Award and Grammy nominated, Drama Desk Award-winning musical that “Musical Theatre West” is currently presenting on stage at the “Carpenter Center For The Performing Arts” in Long Beach California. The opening production of their astounding 66th Season, “Bright Star” features a book by Steve Martin and Lyrics by Edie Brickell (with additional ‘ensemble’ lyrics by Martin) while the Music-Composing duties is a shared effort by Martin and Brickell. Hailed by “Variety” as a “Gorgeous Anthem To Optimism”, the musical traces its beginnings to the duo’s Grammy-winning collaboration on the 2013 bluegrass album “Love Has Come for You”. Helming MTW’s vibrant new production as both Director and Choreographer is Richard Gatta, who not only appeared in the original Broadway production, he also served as the Choreography Supervisor for its first national tour, while the Musical Direction is by Dennis Castellano. (All things considered, it’s a winning team and a winning endeavor indeed!)
Flying in the face that he’s simply a funny-man (who sometimes plays the banjo,) the libretto Martin has penned is surprisingly poignant, peppered with just a few gag-lines or humorous one-liners to lighten the mood as needed. In fact, one sound you can count on hearing from quite a lot in this one is the effervescent twang of that self-same stringed implement with the long neck that’s been Martin’s instrument of choice since the start of his varied career. What’s more, the entr’acte by the onstage band itself was so uplifting, it could well-nigh be counted as a showstopper in its own right! Brickell’s music and melodies recall the very best of the now near-fabled, pre “Rhinestone Cowboy” days of the “Grand Ol’ Opry” circa the 1930’s up through to the 1950’s–back when country music remained very much entrenched in its Deep-Southern Cultural roots. Her lyrics also possess an incredible wealth of sincere human emotion that runs the gamut from piercing visceral pain and outrageous tragedy to sheer exultation at one’s uttermost desperately yearned for desires at last being realized. Even the hardest moments to watch will continue to have your toes a’tappin’ thanks to the ingenuity of each of her tunes. To both Martin and Brickell’s supreme credit, “Bright Star” challenges what a musical can be—and just as vitally, how it can be sung! Moreover, “Musical Theatre West’s” new production more than lives up to all the strengths the material is teeming with, and in a few cases, categorically surpasses or enhances them, so that by the time the final bows roll-around you’ll KNOW you’ve been through something! What’s in store is an authentic theatrical ‘discovery’ waiting to be discovered–even better, this new production in Long Beach surely makes it worth discovering! Yes, it can be an emotional, ‘larger-than-life’ rollercoaster ride at times, but it’s one you’ll be thrilled to be taken on.
Said to be loosely based on real events—notably a provincial incident in Missouri that occurred around the turn of the century, which over time has become known as “The Legend Of The Iron Mountain Child”; instead this ‘adaptation’ takes some of the fundamental incidents inherent to that story and re-sets the locale to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, with the action alternating between 1945-46 and several flashbacks to 1923. Steve Martin’s book more accurately seems to employ assorted elements from sources similar to (and as disparate as) “Splendor In The Grass” and Euripides’ “Iphigenia At Tauris”. Either way, the result is a sweeping tale of love, redemption, romance and destiny–exploring the life of “Alice Murphy” at two very different points of her life. In the early 1920s, she’s a wide-eyed and wild, adolescent growing up barefoot and carefree in Zebulon, a modest jerk-water town nearby to the Blue Ridge Mountains; then in the Post-World War II years of the 1940s, we find she’s now a poised and mature magazine editor in Asheville N.C. As a young teen, Alice falls head-over-heals in love with the Mayor’s son, “Jimmy-Ray Dobbs” –a charismatic small-town heart-throb whom any girl would fall for. Even so, their star-crossed love falls victim to the interference of his ambitious father. Two decades later, Alice, now the successful editor of “The Asheville Southern Journal”, meets “Billy Cane”— a promising young writer, who himself is fresh out of the army, and attempting to transition back to civilian life. The story is a rich tapestry of twists, turns, and deep emotions—including one of the most heart-wrenching Act breaks in any recent musical! For all that, in true Broadway tradition, by the end, “faith restored, and hope secured”, two couples divided are at last reunited—what more does it take to make a truly joyous ending? Bringing the point home, the ultimate ‘moral’ of the story is revealed by way of some extra stanzas in a quick but jaunty reprise of the title number, sung as part of the curtain call: “You never know what life will bring you—only what you bring to life; hopes and dreams and fine imaginings happen in their own good time…”
Richard Gatta has undoubtedly put his knowledge and insight of the show to excellent use—maintaining a fast, but not too-hurried pace, which aids immensely in a show like this that occurs in disparate (and in many ways, competing,) time frames, and with so much happening as the plot progresses. His resourceful blocking also gets maximum results from what are ostensibly minimalist sets, creating a vigorous, and always engrossing stage production that absolutely couldn’t be a more buoyant nor more life-affirming choice with which to launch MTW’s brand new season! Likewise, due to some very clever choreography, even the scene changes are energetic and entertaining. As far as dance goes, Gatta recreates the original moves of Broadway choreographer Josh Rhodes, and while the dance-sections in this instance are not exactly huge extravaganzas, the show does boast its share of fancy footwork which inform both the place and culture the story is played out against—over and above its differing times, besides! One such sequence involves the “Zebulon Couples Day 1923” celebration, for which Gatta has fashioned a fun and folksy “Square Dance”. He also incorporates some fairly flashy maneuvers into “A Firmer Hand” (look for some jazzy rhythmic ‘ham-bone’ style hand-gestures accentuated with some snappy ‘square-dance calls” here too. For “What Could Be Better” (as our two young protagonists’ romance seriously starts to heat up,) he reconstructs a sultry summer barn-dance, as the couples on the dance-floor, awash in shadowy blue light broken by a solitary handful of dim lanterns—commence to capering in slow motion while the young couple, downstage but somewhat separated from the throng, engage in a smoldering courtship ritual. Afterwards, amidst the lighthearted “Another Round” Gatta uses the opportunity to re-state and reinforce those times even more thoroughly by enlivening the song with a rollicking “Jitter Bug” –to a down-home, Honky-Tonk beat, while even utilizing a few samba-influenced steps into it to boot!
The show’s real heart and soul is the enthralling performance by Anna Mintzer as “Alice Murphy”, who never rings a false note whether acting or singing (–and for this role, both require some fairly robust abilities.) Hers is decidedly a two-fold characterization—alternating between the more mature (and much staider and in control,) Editor of “The Ashville Southern Journal”, and the more carefree young lass who hasn’t yet been ‘scarred’ by life. Later, once “Jimmy-Ray” has re-entered her life, we find Alice has become a changed woman—less guarded and severe, adding one more ‘dimension’ to her character’s arc. With a voice reminiscent of Linda Ronstadt or Crystal Gayle, (with maybe just a touch of Donna Fargo thrown in) this makes her interpretations of the songs she’s been allocated especially impressive and oh, so fitting for the material. This she verifies straight away with her opening, “If You Knew My Story”—acquainting us with the older “Alice” while also giving us some insight as to how (despite her outward solemnity,) she really was, once-upon-a-time, a child with an indomitable life-force, as sings of her younger self, “I Born to carry more than I could hold; even though I stumble, even though I fall, you’ll Never see me crumble—Never see me crawl!” It’s dynamic opening all around. Her follow-up chanson, “Way Back In The Day” hearkens back to the best of what vintage Jukebox country music often was, when the stories they told were every bit as important as the notes and chords used to tell them, as “Alice” further enlightens us as to the girl she once was.
Just before the close of the First Act, she enthralls us all over again with “I Can’t Wait”; After receiving news that she’s expecting, she croons softly to her unborn child: “I’m gonna make you a sweater and dress you up so fine; and we’ll always be together—I’ll keep your hand in mind” (Portentous and pitiable given the turn of events that will quickly follow.) A lilting lullaby, complimenting her vocals is a gentle fiddle obbligato, which makes it both disarmingly bright and beautiful, while simultaneously slightly biting in a “If-you-only-knew” way as well. Post intermission, Mintzer also has numerous chances to dazzle and affect us, but none of them more superior or sublime than “Alice’s” 11 O’clock declaration, “At Long Last” as she finally discovers who Billy is and how this revelation has put her long years of quiet despair to rest: “It’s the day I’ve waited for at last”, she exults—the words may be simple, but she makes them palpably heartfelt and mightily conveyed up through an stirring crescendo (and it just might bring tears to your eyes along the way!)
As the ‘Love of her Life’, “Jimmy-Ray Dobbs”, Devin Archer has a tousle-haired, mile-wide-grin kind of boyish charm, not to mention he, himself packs a high-octane vocal wallop (with just a hint of that ‘lonesome country-boy’ wail on those extended money-notes, as is essential for many of his songs throughout.) “Jimmy-Ray’s” introduction, “Whoa Mama”, one of those bouncy tunes with rapid-patter, punctuated merely by a few lengthy ‘held phrases”, divulges that he truly is a consummate match for Ms. Mintzer: “You’re YOOOUUUNG GIIIIIIRL, and ya outa know better …” he playfully belts out as the two engage in their melodic flirtation. As they grow as closer as two hormonally charged kids can get, she tells him, “This is Hicksville–and we’re the hicks in the Ville—unless we get ourselves out!” In his second act “lament” titled “Heartbreaker”, upon hearing of his father’s abhorrent actions, the notes Archer sings, along with each pause in between, reveal the inner devastation of a man betrayed by everyone he trusted. It’s raw, real and unflinchingly honest—definitely a moment one doesn’t often come upon in a musical and Archer administers it superbly. Meanwhile, the gospel-tinged “I Had A Vision” (on the occasion of “Alice” and “Jimmy-Ray’s” unexpected reunion) once again demonstrates each performer’s phenomenal talents at earnestly expressing the meaning and feeling intrinsic to Brickell’s lyrics. “Alice…is it better to hope or is it better to know?” he asks her darkly regarding the perceived ‘truth’ of their child’s supposed ‘adoption’ as both confront their shared past. As “William ‘Billy’ Cane”, Taubert Nadalini is also a significant shot of wholesome, handsome amazement with a voice and talent to match. “He’s a liar, and liars make very good storytellers” Alice says of this lad who drops in seeking a position on her magazine, telling her he has a letter recommendation from acclaimed author Thomas Wolfe whom, he says, wrote to him during the war (never mind that Wolfe had, in reality, died seven years before and wasn’t even around then.) Starting softly as a benediction at his ‘deceased’ mother’s still-fresh place of resting, Nadalini hands over an A-Plus version of the show’s title number as our “Billy”, on his way to seeks his fame and fortune, lets it be known to one and all that he’s a man who “follows his own Bright Star” (this also quickly grows into the full-cast undertaking with some genuinely incredible chorale work from the uniformly talented ensemble too!)
Paige Herschell is also a highly likable stage-presence as “Billy’s” childhood ‘friend’ (and eventually much more) “Margo”. Harboring a not-so-secret crush on her just discharged “Soldier-boy” this gives rise to some of the finest moments between the pair. She does an outstanding job with her Act One soliloquy-through-song, “Asheville” as “Margo” honestly tries to hope the best for Billy and his career as a writer, even if it means putting her own hoped-for relationship with him aside–perhaps forever: “It won’t be the same here–Without you I’ll be fighting tears…when you were over in the war I fought ’em off before.” Herschell also gives praiseworthy service in Act Two with her contribution to “The Sun Is Gonna Shine”, before getting together with Nadalini to share another fantastic duet with “Always Will” (once Billy returns from Ashville chiefly to visit the gal who has always been his number one fan and supporter–even proof-reading and re-typing all of his stories for him.) This time however, he sees her in a new and romantic light finally confessing: “We’re never meant to be apart—I love you now as I have from the start; I always have and I always will…” Sean Smith too, has a potent way with delivering a song and he astutely invests his character with a practiced ‘phrasing’ that essentially tells us all about this man (and the high opinion he has of himself,) as “Jimmy-Ray’s” father, “Mayor Josiah Dobbs”. Although the out-and-out ‘villain’ of this piece, he treads toward the more-subtle rather than anything overtly evil or superficially malevolent (his actions more than take care of that aspect.) His initial “big” vocal outing, “A Man’s Gotta Do What A Man’s Gotta Do”, has him caroling forth his philosophy of ends justifying the means, as he reminds his son, “We marry conveniently in order to live”, reinforcing his expectation that “Jimmy-Ray” will solely consider financially ‘appropriate’ girls for actual marriage. Subsequently referring to his own grandson as “a creature” when he commits the unspeakable act we ‘think’ we’ve seen him do, the outrage and sense of brutal injustice seething through the whole auditorium at “The Carpenter Center” was so intense you could virtually feel it! After intermission when it’s heard that his own quietus is fast approaching, you’re not likely to feel a whit of remorse over it! (“OK, so barring any resemblances to the basic times and location, “The Waltons” this ain’t!)
Also lending laudable support, albeit in smaller portions are Ted Barton as “Alice’s” father, “Papa Murphy” and Rayna Hickman as “Mama Murphy”. Their prime number, “A Firmer Hand” in which they query of their headstrong daughter, “Is she a black sheep or just a little lost lamb?” is a clear-cut crowd-pleaser, backed by more impressive choral work for the ensemble. Hickman also shines in the Two opener opposite Ms. Mintzer, called “The Sun Is Gonna Shine”. Mellow, and even a little melancholy, in it we learn that “Alice” has suddenly and mysteriously been ‘granted’ a scholarship to go away to college. It’s a strong showcase for both women (even as ‘The Sun’ slowly climbs over the up-stage backdrop, symbolizing “Alice’s” departure from town and from home–ostensibly for good.) David Atkinson also provides admirable support as “Papa Cane”, giving an exceptional rendition of the moving “She’s Gone” (“This news was too big for a letter” he informs his newly-back-from-active-duty, G.I. son of his mother’s recent passing.) Atkinson’s brilliant acting work with this scene is made all the more so by his impassioned ‘restraint’ with his refrain of the song after which “Billy” joins in making it a stark, but truly powerful duet.
So too, Rachelle Rose Clark as “Alice’s” flirtatious Assistant, “Lucy” furnishes her share of hearty laughs and even a bit of excitement as a hot-to-trot ‘cookie’ who knowns how to make the friendly neighborhood dance-hall ‘cook”! She particularly gets her moment to astonish us with “Another Round”, wherein she attempts to help “Billy” loosen up at “The Shiny Penny”. There, she teaches him how to ‘cut a rug’ with some of the latest dance crazes of the age, thanks predominantly to a free-flowing concoction of ‘hair of the dog’ hooch and some prodigious high-kicks. When he eventually joins in, “Billy’s” verses are just as ‘on the beam’ making for a jivey little interlude! Considering too, how for this show in particular, the fiddle is the Hallmark of the musical accompaniment, invaluable—and unquestionably ovation-worthy, is the stunning fiddle playing by James Saunders. So substantial is his work (mainly in the background but all through the proceedings nonetheless,) that he and his music could even be considered a bona-fide character in-and-of themselves. Situated as he is, he’s almost like the ‘spirit’ of the very atmosphere and rural ambience that underscores the entire story.
Making this production even worthier of renown, “Musical Theatre West” has obtained the original Broadway sets and costumes. The set, by Tony Award Winning Set designer Eugene Lee (whose past credits include “Wicked”, “Candide” and “Sweeney Todd”,) consists of expansive brick-wall flats and at center stage a movable “shed” until that’s fittingly slapdash and more than a tad ramshackle; this is the spot the on-stage band is stationed. (Of course, there’s also a more expanded orchestra in the pit under the expert baton of Dennis Castellano.) Shrewdly though, doubling as a playing space, it can be turned-around to function as one of several meager dirt-farm houses. Not to be overlooked either, running the length of the stage overhead, is a broad girder, on which a miniature electric train, at various intervals, rolls across, cunningly signifying railway travel or a change of location. Meritorious too, are Jean Yves Tessier’s inventive lighting effects that bathe much of the ‘flashbacks’ or more ‘revelatory’ scenes in turquoise light, also enabling the sun to rise up over the rear-scrim or to blanket it in a mass of twinkling stars.
“There’s always a song to sing, a melody in the dark; lifts your spirits every time you hear it, comforts an aching heart”—Sure enough, this is precisely that kind of show! After “Previewing” on Friday, October 19th, “Bright Star” ‘Officially’ opened on Saturday, October 20th, 2018, where it is slated to play through Sunday, November 4th, 2018, at “The Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts” located on the campus of California State Long Beach, 6200 E Atherton Street, in Long Beach, California. Showtimes are Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 PM, with Saturday Matinees at 2:00 PM, and Sunday Matinees at 1:00 PM. There will be an added “early” Sunday evening performance on October 28th at 6:00 PM and a Thursday evening performance on November 1st at 8:00 pm. Tickets may be obtained on-line by logging onto: http://www.musical.org, by phone at: (562) 856-1999 ext. 4, or from the “Musical Theatre West” ticket-office located at: 4350 E. 7th Street, Long Beach, Ca.
Production Stills By “Caught In The Moment Photography”, Long Beach CA. (www.caughtinthemoment.com ) Courtesy Of “Musical Theatre West”; Special Thanks To Paul Garman, Lori Yonan, Richard Gatta, Dennis Castellano, And To The Cast And Crew Of “Musical Theatre West’s” 2018 Production Of “Bright Star” For Making This Story Possible.