I’ve seen most of the musicals on Broadway from this past season and ‘Bright Star’ is a shining achievement. It closes on Sunday and I, for one, will miss it as a New York theatre option. I usually don’t write things like this, as we’ll just “pour one out” for a closing show on our theatre podcast, Broadwaysted. However, for ‘Bright Star,’ I felt the urge (need?) to say something more about this beautiful show. I’ve dedicated most of my life to the art form of musical theatre—acting, writing, etc. I can get snobby sometimes, I mean, I spell theatre with an ‘re,’ but when it comes down to it, I just want to sit in a theatre and be taken away somewhere. That’s why I’m writing this piece. ‘Bright Star’ genuinely took my heart somewhere that most shows haven’t recently had the ability to do.
‘Bright Star,’ without getting into plot detail, is essentially the story of how happiness can be restored from even from the darkest of moments. How can innocence be torn away from you and yet the magic of love stays ingrained in your soul, regardless of how your life turns out? What is love in its purest form? ‘Bright Star’ tells this story in its pre and post war North Carolina folk story setting. “Love let me lift this veil of darkness,” is a lyric in the show that rings truest to what the show conveys.
It’s elegant by being simple, showcased by the ‘Our Town’ sensibility. It’s a classic, golden age type of original show and Broadway needs these shows to couple with “contemporary” musicals. ‘Bright Star’ elicits an aura of nostalgia for a place you’ve never been, while reminding you where you’ve come from. The songs are top-tappingly delightful and yet full of emotional power. The sounds of the banjo, fiddle, bass, and piano are built in the fabric of the show, as the band is onstage—a part of the action. The sounds add to the sense of nostalgia. It’s lovely. On top of that, the book is extremely funny in only the way Steve Martin knows funny. Is the show perfect? No, not at all, but it has so much heart that the lack of perfection doesn’t matter in the slightest.
The plot is based on a true event and extremely predictable, but Steve Martin and Edie Brickell have written it that way. It’s explosively uplifting and earns every tear, laugh, and smile. There’s much to take away from ‘Bright Star’—thematically and emotionally, but what sums it up perfectly is the opening song of Act II, “Sun is Gonna Shine.” We’re currently living in a very tense, scary, and powder-keg of a time and quite frankly, it’s nice to see something so beautiful and happy. Everything is going to be okay, but we have to actively be searching for answers.
We semi-joke on Twitter that Carmen Cusack is a #nationaltreasure, but she really is, as Alice Murphy in this production. I don’t know if the show works as a whole without her caliber of talent. Carmen Cusack shifts effortlessly (and believably) from adult to child and the versatility of her voice is unlike anything out in the world now. She nails every song on multiple levels. Her plethora of songs should be sung by different voice types, but “If You Knew My Story,” “Way Back In The Day,” “Woah, Mama,” “Please, Don’t Take Him,” “I Had a Vision,” and “At Long Last” are all delivered with technical precision and emotional power of a true professional. I mean, “Woah, Mama,” sounds like a completely person on the recording, as she’s playing a younger version of herself. It’s amazing. Other actresses wish they had one of those songs in their own show. Cusack knocks each one out of the park. There’s so much detail and layering behind her belt and top and that’s not even taking her acting into account. She’s really putting herself through the wringer at every performance. She leaves everything out there in the house. It’s special. Her on stage vulnerability and emotional life radiates into the house, enveloping and penetrating the audience. I cannot wait to see her in future performances.
That being said, the talent on the stage around her is superb. The personalities of the performers ooze into this heartfelt musical. Nobody is going through the motions or “doing a job.” From Hannah Elless’ bookshop owner, Margo to AJ Shively’s Will and Paul Alexander Nolan’s Jimmy Ray (his songs and voice are emotionally piercing), every performance is infused with love, care, and humor; layered people in a folktale setting. “Asheville” and “Always Will” maybe two of the better musical numbers of this entire Broadway season. They’re sweet, kind, and full of hope, love, sadness, and the kind of magic that only memories can provide. Expertly performed by Hannah Elless and AJ Shipley, the soft touch of the “rewind staging” in “Asheville” is extraordinarily effective.
I’ve seen it twice and I’m sad that it’s closing this Sunday. I believe ‘Bright Star’ would have had a realistic shot of winning Best Musical had this not been Hamilton’s season. Yet, in today’s Broadway musical landscape, I understand why it’s closing. ‘Bright Star’ is hard to market, other shows are flashier with bigger names, it’s not “important” like some of its great white way neighbors, and it doesn’t present that ‘wow’ factor that the average theatre goer is attracted to for their night out. It’s quaint and lovely, but that’s all I want sometimes. We all need our heart strings plucked like the onstage banjo.
Do yourself a favor and make some time this week to see it. You can enter the lottery here before Sunday, but don’t take a chance. Go on Today Tix or the ‘Bright Star’ site and buy a $45 seat. My biggest regret, if I’m allowed to have one for a show I have no involvement in is that you probably didn’t see it at all. Bye, ‘Bright Star,’ thanks for coming to hang out, even if for just a moment.
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