Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

Bright Star
Kennedy Center
Review by Susan Berlin | Season Schedule

Also see Susan's reviews of West Side Story, As You Like It, and Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind


Carmen Cusack
Photo by Joan Marcus
How audiences react to Bright Star will depend on their affection for bluegrass music, heartwarming stories, and coincidences that come close to being miracles. It's professionally done, with a top-notch cast and musicians, but it's so guileless as to seem precious at times.

While Steve Martin (music, book and story) and Edie Brickell (music, lyrics and story) are both accomplished artists, this is their first try at writing a musical and they're still figuring out how the pieces fit together. Sometimes this experimentation works—the propulsive first act never takes a break for applause as songs and dialogue rush forward together—and sometimes it gets problematic. Brickell's lyrics have an authentic down-home feel, but many of the rhymes don't quite fit (house/now; unequivocal/miracle) and too often the flow of words doesn't fit the rhythm of the song.

Martin and Brickell have created a sprawling, epic story that covers more than 20 years and both rural and urban parts of western North Carolina. Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack, radiant) is the heart of the show, but she doesn't take center stage right away. The authors deal with this by giving Alice the opening number, the gist of which is, "If you could tell my story, you'd have a story to tell."

The time is immediately after World War II when soldier Billy Cane (A.J. Shively), an ambitious writer, comes home to his father's North Carolina farm. He heads to Asheville to deliver his stories in person to Alice, the intimidating editor of a prestigious journal of Southern literature. (The audience can tell Alice is a no-nonsense woman from her suit, her pinned-up hair and, of course, her glasses.) But Alice is hiding a sorrow that goes back many years, which soon comes to life onstage.

Young Alice, the high-spirited, intelligent daughter of a farming couple, and Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Paul Alexander Nolan), son of the town's mayor and richest man (Michael Mulheren), are in love. Jimmy Ray's father wants his son to marry a socially and financially appropriate young woman, and he uses cruel and ultimately illegal means to keep the lovers apart. The resulting mystery is easy for the audience to solve.

Director Walter Bobbie keeps the action bubbling and choreographer Josh Rhodes decorates the stage with graceful and energetic couples. (The sense of community, or alternatively the stifling nature of a small town where everyone knows everyone else's business, comes through in the presence of the townspeople as a Greek chorus.) The main piece of Eugene Lee's sparse set is a rough-hewn cabin that contains the 10 musicians led by pianist/accordionist Rob Berman.

Bright Star is set to open on Broadway after the Washington run ends. As of now, it's enjoyable but may seem too thin for a large Broadway house (and prices).

Kennedy Center
Bright Star
December 2nd —January 10th, 2016
Music, book & story by Steve Martin
Music, lyrics & story by Edie Brickell
Billy Cane: A.J. Shively
Daddy Cane: Stephen Bogardus
Margo Crawford: Hannah Elless
Max: Max Chernin
Florence: Sarah Jane Shanks
Edna: Sandra DeNise
Daryl Ames: Jeff Blumenkrantz
Lucy Grant: Emily Padgett
Alice Murphy: Carmen Cusack
Jimmy Ray Dobbs: Paul Alexander Nolan
Daddy Murphy: Stephen Lee Anderson
Mama Murphy: Dee Hoty
Mayor Josiah Dobbs: Michael Mulheren
Stanford Adams: William Youmans
Dr. Norquist: Michael X. Martins
Stationmaster: Patrick Cummings
County Clerk: Allison Briner-Dardenne
Ensemble: Allison Briner-Dardenne, Max Chernin, Patrick Cummings, Sandra DeNise, Michael X. Martin, Tony Roach, Sarah Jane Shanks, William Youmans
Directed by Walter Bobbie
Choreographed by Josh Rhodes
Eisenhower Theater, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
2700 F St. NW, Washington, DC
Ticket Information: (800) 444-1324 or (202) 467-4600 or www.kennedy-center.org


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