Bright Star

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Photo: Nick Stokes Review
Steve Martin is a man of many, many talents, but on the evidence of the Broadway’s “Bright Star,” now at the Cort Theatre, writing the book of a musical simply isn’t one of them. Which is a shame, considering the considerable craft that Martin and his frequent collaborator, Edie Brickell, have put into their ultra-tuneful bluegrass-flavored score, and the impressive array of talent onstage --most notably leading lady (and Broadway newcomer) Carmen Cusack – who deliver everything they’ve been handed with conviction.

For some audiences, two out of three will be more than not bad, it will be worth the price of admission. But I suspect a certain percentage of theatergoers (namely, experienced locals) won’t really be able to get past Martin’s overly earnest, structurally muddled and often tonally-questionable libretto.

The show seesaws been 1923 and 1946 in the life of headstrong North Carolina country girl turned hard-nosed magazine editor Alice Murphy – at first, rather confusingly, and later to serve a rather ridiculous plot twist, one which becomes obvious to many viewers long before it should to have any real impact.

Luckily, Cusack, a fine singer and superb actress, flawlessly embodies Murphy in both periods with grit and vulnerability, which goes a long way to helping us overlook the show’s flaws. In fact, Martin would have done well to completely focus on her character early on, instead of spending a little too much time establishing neophyte writer and returning soldier Billy Cane (an appealing A.J. Shively), who becomes her protégé of sorts – and who is more plot device than protagonist.

Conversely, I could have happily seen and heard more of Paul Alexander Nolan, handsome and strong-voiced as always, as Alice’s rich-boy lover Jimmy Ray Dobbs, and I was quite taken with Hannah Elless as Margo, the sweet bookstore worker who pines for Billy.

Moreover, it frankly seems almost criminal to waste such top-tier talents as Dee Hoty, Stephen Bogardus, Michael Mulheren, and Stephen Lee Anderson, all of whom can do little with their cardboard cut-out, deep-fried Southern stereotype roles. And while I have to admit I loved the sassy interplay between Jeff Blumenkrantz and Emily Padgett as Murphy’s 1946 co-workers, the dry-witted (and obviously gay) Daryl and the quick-tongued (and decidedly slutty) Lucy, they both seem like they’ve been time-transported from another era, or at least, another genre.

Perhaps the best that can be said of the work of director Walter Bobbie and choreographer Josh Rhodes is that they literally keep things moving quickly on Eugene Lee’s simple set, dominated by a constantly revolving shack that houses six members of the fine onstage band (led by Rob Berman of City Center Encores! fame).

As for Martin and Brickell’s score, which ranges from heartwrenching ballads to peppy dance numbers to anthems of survival, it pleases the ear on first listening, and its virtues will likely become magnified if one hears it more. And that’s why I am glad they still make CDs -- because I really couldn’t make it through a second viewing of “Bright Star”—at least not with a straight face.
By Brian Scott Lipton

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Carmen Cusack, Paul Alexander Nolan, Michael Mulheren, AJ Shively, Hannah Elless, Stephen Bogardus, Dee Hoty, Stephen Lee Anderson, Emily Padgett, Jeff Blumenkrantz, Maddie Shea Baldwin, Allison Briner, Max Chernin, Patrick Cummings, Sandra DeNise, Richard Gatta, Lizzie Klemperer, Michael X. Martin, William Michals, Tony Roach, Sarah Jane Shanks, William Youmans

Open/Close Dates
Opening 3/24/2016
Closing 6/26/2016

Preview Open/ Preview Close Dates
Preview Opening 2/25/2016
Closing Open-ended

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Theatre Info
James Earl Jones Theatre
138 West 48th Street
New York, NY 10036