One hot new Broadway musical, complete with banjos, mandolins, fiddles and the like, is called Bright Star. It incorporates old timey and bluegrassy music and instruments in a story that takes place in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Weaving between 1945 and 1923, the play examines the interconnectedness of people, places… loves, and losses.
This presentation, the instrumentation as well as the singing, dancing, and plot, struck me as immensely satisfying. Book and music were written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, and the play is directed by Tony Award winner Walter Bobbie. Their initial concept for the story was inspired by an old news story that Edie read, which motivated she and Steve to give birth to this play.
The action centers around an eager young man named Billie Cane (played by A. J. Shively) in the 1940s, who leaves his rural small town for the big city in hopes of becoming a professional writer. He heads to the big city of Ashville where he strives to have his writing accepted into the premier writer’s journal of the day, where he must pitch it to the stern and hard-to-impress editor, Alice Murphy (played by Carmen Cusack). As the story begins, he (and we) have no idea what effect this move will have on his future and his wider world.
On top of the clever storyline, a favorite part for me was the choreography, not just of the actors and the dancers, but also the magical ballet of the props and stage elements that would float around between the scenes. A cabin, furniture, bars, bookshelves, and other props wheeled between and around each other to miraculously effect a seamless transition from one scene into the next.
The stage itself is set in one of the premier historic theaters of Broadway, the beautiful old Cort Theatre. This venue had its first show in 1912, and its walls and ceilings are covered with Louis XVI-style paintings and ornamentation, with balconies dotting the room. It has an impressive history, with a number of great plays and TV shows having filmed there over the years. The Cort Theatre has been officially designated as an official New York City Landmark.
One thing that I liked about this play over some others I have seen lately around New York is that the show highlights the musicians making the live music that accompanies the scenes, dances and songs. Many of the musicians are playing on the stage amongst the cast, often in a rustic skeleton of a cabin that can be wheeled to and fro, and the musicians never drop a beat through song and scene changes.
I wouldn’t want to give too much of the plot away and spoil your fun, but I will say that Bright Star captures the heart and mind, and engages the audience with its compelling story, not to mention live traditional-style music. I highly recommend seeing this play as an enchanting theater experience with its impeccable use of staging, set design, songs, and story.
Hopefully this show will have a long run and show how successful bluegrass on Broadway can be. Hats off to the creators and all involved.
Details about ticket availability can be found online. An original cast recording is expected in late April.