“You need to find a sweeping tale of pain and redemption,” one character tells another in Bright Star, the new musical by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell playing at the Cort Theatre. Unfortunately, it seems Martin and Brickell did not take their own advice. This highly anticipated new musical, featuring original bluegrass music by its well-known team, is pretty as a picture, but disappointingly unoriginal.
Bright Star is one of very few musicals to bow on Broadway that is not adapted from another source material, such as a book or movie, but that doesn’t mean it’s telling a new story. Bright Star, which was created by the Grammy-winning team of Martin and Brickell, who collaborated on the music and the story, with Martin providing the book and Brickell the lyrics, falls prey to numerous clichés and tropes of theatre. Despite its lovely and moving score, the production is unable to lift itself above those clichés.
Directed by Walter Bobbie, Bright Star tells two stories simultaneously which are separated from each other by about 20 years. One is the tale of Alice (Carmen Cusack), a spunky, rebellious young girl from a small town who falls in love with Jimmy Ray (Paul Alexander Nolan). Misunderstood by her peers and her family, who refer to her as the black sheep of the family, Alice escapes into books. But when she finds herself unexpectedly pregnant with Jimmy Ray’s child, her sweetheart’s father (Michael Mulheren) takes it upon himself to decide her future for her.
Twenty years into the future, Billy (A. J. Shively) returns home from the war and begins to pursue a career as a writer. He leaves his small town, his father (played by Stephen Bogardus) and Margo, the childhood friend who longs for romance (played with wistful charm by Hannah Elless) to begin submitting his stories to the Asheville Southern Journal, a prestigious publication run by none other than Alice, who sees real potential in his work. And the bond between the two is soon revealed to be more than just professional.
Alice is brought to feisty life on stage by Cusack, making an impressive (and what appears to be exhausting) Broadway debut. She and Nolan share a sensual chemistry — at one point he comments admiringly that she has “a bit of wildcat” in her — and Nolan, who possesses a rich voice of unexpected depth, gives real life to Jimmy’s frustrations with his overbearing father. Shively is also impressively endearing as Billy, and Elless brings a melancholy sweetness to her role. Jeff Blumenkrantz and Emily Padgett bring enjoyable comic relief as Alice’s employees at the literary journal.
Personally, I was thrilled to see a character like Alice on a Broadway stage. Even as a teenager, she is surprisingly confident and self-assured. She doesn’t resort to games with Jimmy; instead she proudly tells him she has feelings for him. And when she learns she is pregnant, she doesn’t express embarrassment or shame. During a moving (and beautifully lit scene) where she sings of her baby, she is surrounded by men — her father, Jimmy Ray’s father and her doctor — telling her what to do with her body and her child. Even then, she makes her own decision.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to see these decisions coming from a mile away, as well as the songs that illustrate the characters’ thoughts about them. When Alice learns the truth about the child that was taken from her 20 years ago, she immediately bursts into (another) uplifting song, without a moment of pause to illustrate the shock or grief that one might feel upon learning such news.
Bright Star is sweet and sentimental and definitely uplifting. In fact, everything about the production is lovely, including the sets by Eugene Lee, the choreography by Josh Rhodes, Jane Greenwood’s costumes and Japhy Weideman’s lighting, but it’s all too familiar and predictable. Martin is a legend in entertainment; why would he choose to write a story that is already overdone? The smart and spunky girl who is an unwed mother is a story that has already been told, again and again, and the execution of the story follows all of the clichés, right up to its concluding scene of happily ever afters.
I guess after decades of success, even Steve Martin is permitted a miss now and then. That’s what the characters in Bright Star would tell me, anyway.