Steve Martin once said: “When you’re playing the banjo, everything’s OK.” And that may be what ultimately saves “Bright Star.” Despite some pretty glaring deficiencies, the music is so good you almost don’t care about lyrics, dialogue or plot. This bluegrass fairytale just puts a smile on your face.
Set in North Carolina immediately after World War II, the world premiere show begins with Billy Cane (A.J. Shively) returning from the war to pursue his dream of becoming a writer. He soon moves to Asheville, leaving his love interest, Margo Crawford (Hannah Elless), and camps out on the doorstep of the Asheville Southern Journal.
The journal’s editor, grouchy Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack), takes a shine to the boy and agrees to pay for (though not publish) one of his stories. Why is Alice so grouchy? Funny you should ask, the musical flashes back 22 years to show us a younger, wide-eyed Alice, her love interest Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Wayne Alan Wilcox) and his Boss Hogg-like father, Mayor Josiah Dobbs (Wayne Duvall). You can probably figure out the rest.
From there, the story veers from one melodramatic song to another. While the music is excellent throughout, Edie Brickell’s lyrics and Steve Martin’s book are spotty — no cliché left behind. Sometimes a song is used when a few seconds of dialogue might be the better option. The songs “My Wonderful Career” and “Please Don’t Take Him” are downright cringeworthy. Brickell is on firmer ground with “Asheville,” “Firmer Hand” and “Whaddya Say, Jimmy Ray.” There’s a strong tendency to go for the obvious — whether it be in lyrics, dialogue or plot.
Cusack anchors the show admirably, providing dramatic nuance where there’s none to be found in lyrics or book. Wilcox also does a fine job. It’s a large cast and they work together quite well. Special mention for Jeff Hiller, who plays Asheville Southern Journal receptionist Daryl Ames, a character seemingly transported from 2014 to provide (much-needed) campy laughs.
The winner is the staging. A shack-on-wheels, containing musicians and the odd actor, is continuously rolled back and forth across the stage, part of the show’s intricate choreography. A number of moments, such as an on-stage costume change, are pure magic. Kudos to director Walter Bobbie for accentuating the show’s liveliness, its best attribute.
“Bright Star” asks us to do more than observe 1945, it wants us to be an audience from 1945: flush from victory in an epic battle between good and evil, we can’t help but see a world without gray.
In the end, people will come for the great music and enjoyable production — and they should. But the two-dimensional characters and simplistic dialogue and lyrics are a disappointment, undermining a show with tremendous potential.