Sometimes I wish I could suddenly switch directors in the middle of a show. The action will be flowing along at a pretty even clip, and then BOOM something happens so awkward and misguided that members of the audience begin to laugh at what is intended to be a serious moment. That kind of moment occurs in Bright Star, the new Steve Martin-Edie Brickell musical playing at the Cort Theatre, at the end of the first act, and the show never quite recovers from it despite a glowing performance by its lead actress and an interesting story.
Bright Star begins as the story of Billy Cane (A.J. Shively), an aspiring writer from a small town in North Carolina who travels to the big city with the hope of being published by the persnickety but well-respected literary editor, Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack). As Billy is encouraged to continue with his writing, a parallel story unfolds of Alice as a teenager with her boyfriend, Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Paul Alexander Nolan). How the two stories are connected becomes pretty apparent to anyone paying any attention at all within about thirty minutes (book writer Steve Martin is no Agatha Christie), but there is a lot of joy to be found in the Bluegrass score, standouts being “If You Knew My Story,” “What Could Be Better,” and “Sun is Gonna Shine.” There are the usual requisite annoying supporting characters (someone needs to tell Jeff Blumenkrantz, who plays Alice’s junior editor, Daryl Ames, that the part of Phil Silvers has already been cast), but the real problem is not with the performers, the story, or the score – it’s with the direction by Walter Bobbie. More on that later.
One consistent bright light in the show is that which shines from Carmen Cusack as Alice Murphy, the girl with a past and a “story to tell” about it. Ms. Cusack is consistently engaging and exciting to watch, and she transitions effortlessly from a teenager in the 1920s to a sophisticated but guarded career woman in the 1940s, aided by beautifully crafted costumes by Jane Greenwood that have the appearance of being lightly faded with delicate hues to help evoke the period. When the truth emerges about a painful period in her character’s past, Ms. Cusack’s reaction is so bare and honest that I defy anyone not to be riveted. Hers is an award-worthy performance, a remarkable Broadway debut.
The scene that causes this production to go off the rails closes the first act and involves Michael Mulheren as Mayor Josiah Dobbs, the father of Alice’s beau, Jimmy Ray. Without giving away any spoilers, the scene contains a violent act and an important traveling bag with some precious cargo. Mayor Dobbs is on a train singing the monotonous “A Man’s Gotta Do” (which is basically the same lyric repeated ad nauseam, causing some audience members around me to groan) and then launches this very important bag into the air, at which point it rotates in slow motion across the stage. Everyone around me started laughing. There was something terribly comic about the moment that I firmly believe was unintentional as it involves a willful violent act towards an innocent (I’m trying to be vague as not to spoil the story here). How could a director of Walter Bobbie’s caliber not sense that the scene was not coming across properly and work to adjust it? The derisive chortling picked up in the second act in a poorly-written and acted scene wherein Mayor Dobbs confesses his deed to his son. Mr. Nolan as Jimmy Ray keeps asking things like, “What do you mean?” so much that I began to wonder if his character was suffering from some cognitive processing disability.
All hope for any consistent tone is lost for good in a scene in which Stephen Bogardus as Billy’s father recounts a story of when Billy was a newborn. The scene has all the subtlety and depth of a “Hee Haw” segment, and it did elicit laughter but not because it was funny; we laughed because it was ridiculous and made a mockery of the entire piece! As far as I can see, the blame lays at Mr. Bobbie’s feet for taking a work with such potential and alternately steering it directly into oncoming traffic.
Bright Star tells an incredible story inspired by a true event (that is how it is stated in the advertising materials), has some good music, and contains one of the most heartfelt performances I’ve seen on Broadway this year by Ms. Cusack; it also has moments that elicit laughter because of their ineptitude. It’s heartbreaking to witness such a mixed bag when it’s apparent a lot of love went into it. Imagine a delicious bag of popcorn that starts out great until you realize only half of the kernels popped; it doesn’t mean the popcorn wasn’t worth getting, it just means you aren’t going to get as much out of it as you would’ve liked. Bright Star is still worth seeing for many reasons, but I can see this work succeeding far more with someone else at the helm. Here’s hoping the show has a future in licensing as I feel it could do very well with the proper guidance.
** 1/4 out of ****
Bright Star continues in the Cort Theatre at 138 West 48th Street in midtown Manhattan, and more information can be found at http://brightstarmusical.com/