‘Bright Star’ Shines Brightly in the Majestic Opener
Bright Star Combines Talented Singers with an Interesting Story and Lots of Great Moves
Majestic Theater’s 26th season opener in West Springfield tonight was a bang of a musical, a rootin’ tootin’ two-and-a-half hours of nonstop old time singing, clever choreography and a whirlwind of set changes that kept the audience on its toes with music that never stopped.
As the first scene opened and so many men and women came flooding out on stage, I counted 15 and realized what a contrast this musical was to many of the productions I’ve reviewed in the Valley this summer that had far fewer actors. This was going to be big!
Steve Martin, the comedian/banjo player and funny guy we all know, wrote this full length musical with fellow musician Edie Brickell in 2014, and it was on Broadway for 109 performances until 2016. Their collaborative bluegrass album inspired the play.
The feeling you got throughout the show was that we’ve all been transported back to 1945, and the war had just ended –and then to 1923 through the main character’s flashbacks.
Alice Murphy’s (Chelsie Nectow) early life as as rebellious teenager chafing against her Bible thumping daddy in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains was what we came back to, along with her adolescent love of neighbor Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Michael Graham Morales).
The set by Josiah Durham was interesting because he set the band right in the middle, behind wooden bars and shelving that somewhat concealed them, but not the fiddler. Ann-Marie Messbauer sat in the open and her strong playing anchored the band. A banjo (Laura Ross), guitar, (Charlotte Ross), keyboards (Elisabeth Weber, Cliff Schofer) and bass (Don Rovero) made up the talented band, who had an outsized role not only in setting the scene, but adding drama with sound effects.
Dawn McKay’s 1940s costumes had a colorful appeal, with the ladies swinging their gingham dresses and the men in their buttoned up vests and a soldiers uniform. It was a pleasant escape in a theater where time had taken us backward as we tapped our toes to the infectious bluegrass soundtrack.
Edie Brickell’s talent in songwriting was evident, her songs told the complicated tale of love on display, love denied, emotional deprival, shocking depravity and then redemption, all to the tunes of either bouncy country songs with clever rhymes or poignant ballads. This is a story of Alice’s life and what got her to the editor’s desk at the prestigious Asheville Southern Journal. She states it plainly in the first song, titled ‘My Story.’
Each song is simply titled and moves the show forward, in between each scene, actors whisk the chairs and furniture around and put up signs such as “Hayes Creek” and the bookstore sign to change the location. The clever set changes used a simple podium with dangling newspapers to perfectly place us in the book store and other sets were just as sparse and simple.
Steven Sands got a lot of well-earned laughs with his sarcastic and caustic portrayal of the tough editorial gatekeeper at the Asheville Southern Journal, where in one of opening scenes we meet a young soldier Billy Cane who is keen to be published in the prestigious journal. But the strict gatekeeper doesn’t suffer fools easily, she is as tough as nails and she’s the full grown Alice we met earlier. As Sands quipped when we watch Alice’s character soften for well-earned reasons, “I miss that layer of gloom you usually bring!”
The plot takes many twists and turns and for a solid minute we collectively loathed the character of Mayor Dobbs (Robert Clark III) and his fellow old guy co-conspirator, Alice’s father Daddy Murphy, for agreeing to a terrible solution to keep Alice from marrying up with Murphy’s son. A funny twist at the end brought things back to normal and happy, and another song sealed the deal. As the director, Sue Dziura, said in the program, parts of the story are true. It all harkens back to a legendary 1902 folk song “Iron Mountain Baby,” about an abandoned baby found in the woods.
While the plot is complex, the result is satisfying, and we rode out of the theater on the back of another bouncy bluegrass number feeling pretty good about the whole thing.
Bright Star runs September 7 through October 15 at the West Springfield theater. Tickets are $31-$37 and are available at the box office or by calling (413) 747-7797. Tickets.