As has often been noted, the original Broadway production of Bright Star had the misfortune of opening in the same season as Hamilton, which would have left any competitors in the dust; but Bright Star faced the additional hurdle of never really being destined for Broadway in the first place. That’s not to fault the show—just to point out that its bluegrass score, its intimate tone, its quiet contentment to focus on storytelling without agenda (for better and worse), and its impressive earnestness were never going to make a splash in Manhattan. Happily, the musical is well-suited to an intimate space like the New Hazlett; and, if the opening night crowd was anything to go by, it’s found a receptive audience in Pittsburgh.
I won’t say much about the plot—it’s hard to explain and in any case, half the fun is watching it play out—but broadly speaking, it takes place in North Carolina, jumping back and forth between the mid-1940s and the early 1920s. Our heroine is Alice Murphy, a small-town girl with big-time dreams who, after a series of emotional twists and turns over the span of twenty years, ends up as editor-in-chief of the Asheville Southern Journal, an iron-penned catalyst behind a renaissance of Southern writers. Billy Cane, a young and enthusiastic soldier just returned from the war, wants nothing more than to be published in the Journal, and he sets out to win Alice’s good opinion and establish himself as a writer. As the show progresses, their lives are first juxtaposed, then increasingly intertwined, in a story of heartbreak, loss, joy, and redemption.
As the opening number notes, the show has “a good story to tell,” and it succeeds in large part because of its confidence in not just occupying but owning its niche. It has a comforting nonspecific charm, like tuning in to Turner Classic Movies to watch a pleasant and expectable film no one’s ever
heard of: it doesn’t bring anything new to the table, but it crafts a satisfying meal out of familiar ingredients. The writers, Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin) and Edie Brickell, clearly had a keen understanding of their show’s brand, and when the writing reaches the apex of that brand—as in the title song—the effect is moving. It’s refreshing (if occasionally cloying) to watch something so entirely without irony, and worth sitting through some of the more perfunctory numbers to get to the highlights of the show, which come together beautifully.
But above and beyond any consideration of the material is the fact that this production is excellent across the board and serves as a resounding endorsement for Front Porch Theatricals: every aspect is presented with a clear enthusiasm matched by talent. The orchestra (led by conductor Douglas Levine and featuring the bluegrass trio of Marina Pendleton, Bryce Rabideau, and Jim Scott) expertly provide the musical fuel required to make the show really hum, and they make it look easy. The graceful direction (Nick Mitchell), gorgeous lighting (Andrew David Ostrowski), and elegant sets (Johnmichael Bohach) make admirable use of the New Hazlett space, combining in a fluid minimalism that provides an uncluttered scaffold for the story.
While that story most closely follows Alice Murphy’s journey, I’m not sure I can single out particular cast members for praise: to do so would feel like a disservice to the commendable unity of their performances, which prioritize the telling of the story over logging time in the spotlight. Even when a character takes center stage, they’re never without the support of the ensemble, and it’s never long before another character gets a chance to step forward and shine in their turn. There’s an admirable equitability to this way of featuring characters, reinforcing the show’s theme that no one is ever alone. Like stars in a constellation, the cast’s individual contributions are vibrant in and of themselves, but their impact is best experienced as part of an interconnected whole.
The production is a reminder and a showcase of the wealth of theatrical talent to be found in the Pittsburgh area—and I wouldn’t miss Front Porch’s next production, Fun Home, for all the bluegrass in North Carolina.
Bright Star runs through May 26th at the New Hazlett Theater. For ticket information, visit their site.
Photography by Deana Muro Photography (last image by Leon S. Vionts)
Categories: Archived Reviews