Bright Star (Cort Theatre – NYC)

 

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.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus – A.J. Shively (Billy)
 

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.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus – Carmen Cusack (Alice)
 
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.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus – Paul Alexander Nolan (Jimmy Ray) and Carmen Cusack (Alice)
 
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.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus – Stephen Lee Anderson (Daddy Murphy) and Carmen Cusack (Alice)
 
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.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus – Carmen Cusack (Alice)
 

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/

Mamas’ Drama (Real Good Productions – Columbus, OH)

How well do any of us really know our parents? That’s the question I asked myself after I saw Nanette Marie’s Mamas’ Drama, a work filled with more drama than you can shake a stick at! And that apostrophe in the title is correct as it is the drama for several mamas, the story spanning more than three generations of a family that has lived with secrets. The play is autobiographical as well, based mostly on Miss Marie’s mother, and it just goes to show that sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.

The story spans from 1929 to 2004, starting with a young Josephine being told by her mama, Millie (Rita Arnold, a force to be reckoned with), that the man she thought was her daddy wasn’t her real daddy. This deceit helps color Josephine’s life. She gets involved with George (an older married man) when she is sixteen, gets pregnant, is beat by her mama when she finds out, and then miscarries! And that’s just within the first fifteen minutes! Before you know it the babies start rolling in along with the infidelities (both George and Josephine are flawed in this regard), and the secrets and lies start building until the truth eventually has to rise to the surface. After seeing this story, I should think most people would heave a sigh of relief that at least their lives aren’t filled with such drama – or are they?

I guess it’s difficult for us to imagine our parents as something other than solely our parents; they are just other people to everyone else, with their own strengths and weaknesses, not the infallible Gods we sometimes picture them to be when we’re little. All of our parents were also young once, doing all of the things we pretend to others that we never did, and they make the rules that work for them even if we don’t agree or understand. Josephine and George were married well over fifty years in spite of their infidelities, and that’s because they defined the terms of their marriage based on their rules. They didn’t exactly have an open marriage, but they chose to overlook things they didn’t want to deal with or considered less important than the overall picture, and this especially caused problems with their oldest son, Steven (played intensely by DeVance Wright). Our parents aren’t perfect people, and their motivations and decisions can’t be neatly bound and explained for us in the way that we might like; sometimes they are messy, and there is nothing you can do but accept it and love them.

 

Photo: Don Sgontz, DSg Photography – Mark E. Pinkston (George), Shelby V. Holden (Josephine), and Chad Michael (Dante)
 
There are many speaking parts in Mamas’ Drama and the cast is quite large, ranging in ability from adequate to incredibly skilled. The powerhouse performance of this piece is by Shelby V. Holden as Josephine, playing her from being a teenager to her eighties. Shelby plays up the naïveté of the young Josephine well, and she helps us understand how it is the craving for attention that drives a lot of Josephine’s choices; she isn’t a mean or manipulative person, just someone who reacts in the moment to what feels right at the time. Shelby has mastered the art of aging on stage with little makeup; subtle adjustments in her clothing, hair, and posture help us see the passage of time. 

Mark E. Pinkston is George, Josephine’s philandering and cuckolded husband, and he also pulls off a remarkable aging process as well as directing the play! Mark’s likability helps us not to hate George as he does some pretty low handed things, and both he and Shelby give life to the characters in a way that we care about them even when they do things that we know will only end up causing more trouble.

Other honorable mentions are for Jesse Nathaniel Robinson as Raymond, Josephine’s long-time love; Yolanda Board as Shirley, Josephine’s best friend who offers the good advice that Josephine never takes; and Syretta Bates as Suzette, the love child of Josephine and Dante (Chad Michael).

What I like most about Mamas’ Drama is its lack of judgement. The characters know when they are doing something they shouldn’t and don’t need to be scolded like children. These are people that live with the consequences of their actions, and there is a lesson to be learned there about forgiveness, acceptance, and the importance of family.

I admit that I got confused a bit when the children started rolling in and the paternity of a few of them was questioned. Still, what is important is that the story be engaging, told well, and be entertaining – Mamas’ Drama is all of that. It’s the kind of play that is sure to elicit gasps from the audience as there seems to be more drama around every corner, but the ultimate destination is one bound for healing and acceptance.

*** out of ****

Mamas’ Drama continues through to August 2nd in the Shedd Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center at 549 Franklin Avenue, and more information can be found at http://mamasdramaplaybook.com/previous-productions/