Trouble and happiness often go hand in hand, and there is plenty of both to be found in Bright Star, the charming bluegrass musical that just launched its national tour at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles after a Broadway run last year. Written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell and inspired by their 2013 album Love Has Come for You, Bright Star tells the story of Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack), both as a lovestruck 16-year-old in 1923 and as a hardened yet successful newspaper editor in 1945.
Directed by Walter Bobbie, the story takes place in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and establishes a strong aesthetic that is unique in the world of musical theater right out of the gate. A nine-person band plays the lovely songs with whimsical instruments such as the banjo and the fiddle, and the rustic set is full of wooden structures and small town charm. The story starts at the end, aptly with a song titled “If You Knew My Story.” Cusack, whose opera training shows, exhibits remarkable vocal control while performing the folksy score. Once the scene is set, we meet Billy (A.J. Shively), who returns home from the war and sets out to achieve his dream of becoming a published writer. He has help from his longtime friend and go-to collaborator, Margo (Maddie Shea Baldwin), who is head over heels for him—Billy, of course, is oblivious. He stubbornly brings his stories to The Asheville Southern Journal, where he meets Alice and gradually wins her over with his boldness and copious confidence.
It’s then that the action rewinds 22 years in a truly lovely transition—as the cast moves the set pieces around in the background, Cusack literally lets down her hair, steps out of her shoes, and walks across the stage into a new dress, going right down the rabbit hole to a very different time in her life. We see young Alice fall in love with a boy named Jimmy Ray, a relationship that will end up changing her life forever and make her the person she is in the later timeline. Jimmy Ray is the mayor’s son and his family does not approve of Alice, whose own parents are not the most supportive, either. The second act takes place almost entirely in 1945 as Alice pieces together pivotal events from her past that turn out to have a tremendous impact on her present.
In warmth, appeal, and creating a specific, original feel Bright Star succeeds overwhelmingly. Martin and Brickell’s music is not what you typically hear in a commercial stage musical, and Cusack, who originated the role in the first workshop in 2013 and earned a Tony nomination for it in 2016, is doing some incredibly fine work. She plays the character at two very distinct ages through smart and well-developed nuances, and considering that in the past she has played roles like Elphaba in Wicked and Nellie Forbush in South Pacific that are vocally disparate from this much softer score, her talent is even more impressive. The cast as a whole is excellent, and the band, who gets a chance to be front and center in an extended musical interlude that kicks off act two, is a delight.
Just as Alice’s life is an ongoing combination of happiness and trouble, if the aesthetic and strong production elements are the happiness of Bright Star, the story is most certainly the trouble. With the exception of Alice, none of the characters are more than one-note, and the tone, dictated by turns in the plot that are at once predictable and perplexing, is wildly inconsistent. The most shocking moment is the very extreme choice that ends act one, which is so dark and cartoonish that it feels incongruous with all that comes before it. Based on that twist, I was able to immediately and correctly predict the entirety of act two, specifically the large “reveal” the show hinges upon. However, when that reveal came I heard many audience members gasping in genuine shock, so it clearly worked for some. It’s very heavy-handed storytelling, full of Machiavellian villains and convenience. As the ending approaches the book becomes less and less nuanced, resulting in a hasty, clichéd finale that feels like something you have seen dozens of times before.
The significant shortcomings of the plot are unfortunate because there is so much else to like here. “If you knew my story, you’d have a good story to tell,” Alice sings, but Bright Star never quite lives up to that promise.
Bright Star runs at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre through November 19th. The running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes including one intermission. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased here. Download the TodayTix app to enter a daily lottery for $25 tickets.