Imagine the shock: You discover your dad ain’t your daddy, and your new boss? – oh honey, she’s your mom. You might not feel like singing and dancing about such secrets, but they do in the new musical Bright Star’ at the Old Globe Theatre, written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell and directed by Walter Bobbie.
Now don’t be mad that I spilled the beans. The title sets up the hopeful resolution of the musical, and by the first act, you can guess some of the rest.
Martin wrote the book; it’s rumored that he gleaned it from a true story. Brickell is a prolific songwriter, which means she’s a storyteller too. Like many contemporary songwriters of the Americana genre, she writes new songs that sound old, in the realm of Gillian Welch and others. And don’t forget that Martin is a revered banjo player and together with Brickell won a Grammy.
Even if you don’t have an ear for distinct bluegrass rhythms or songs about suffering, heartache, and heaven, deep tones in the music prelude will cut into your bones and skin. With all its predictability and symbolism, Bright Star remains as rewarding and bitter sweet as a dark molasses pie, with delicious characters and two stories that unfold over two decades in Ashville, North Carolina.
Young Billy Cane hops off the train after surviving World War II. On his way home to reunite with his aging father, he runs into his girlfriend at a bookstore and announces that he’s going to be published in a famous literary magazine. He heads to the big city Raleigh and meets the serious editor Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack rotating with Sarah Jane Shanks). The audience then has the luxury of learning juicy family secrets before he does.
Through the magic of Eugene Lee’s ingenious sets that include a rotating see-through cabin filled with bluegrass musicians, we meet Alice as a young girl back in 1923. Barefoot and hair down, she’s in love with Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Wayne Alan Wilcox). They roll in the clover and surprise. But it doesn’t end there. Jimmy’s dad, the bloated evil mayor Josiah Dobbs, steps in to do what’s best for everyone and his political reputation. There’s a horrific scene on the back of a train, but the show feels good in the end.
Complex characters could send Bright Star into sequels. Their names feel stereotyped and are hard to keep track of, but it doesn’t matter. Let’s see: Billy, Daddy, Daryl, Jimmy, Daddy, Mama… I couldn’t help thinking of Will Ferrell’s spoof of NASCAR, “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” Let’s remember that Steve Martin, a writer for the “Smothers Brothers Show,” star of the film “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” and that wild and crazy guy on “Saturday Night Live” wrote the book. You might also catch a slight nod to the film “Oh Brother Where Art Thou” in a scene involving a swamp and catching frogs. You might expect the musical to be funnier.
Jeff Hiller offers needed comic relief as Daryl a tall eye-rolling receptionist and gives the magazine office a contemporary flair. Libby Winters as Dora Murphy inserts a dose of grim reality as the guilt-ridden sister. Pathetic and jaw-dropping in a binge drinking dance, she folds one leg under and cranes forward in an impossible curtsey while chugging down another shot of liquor.
Choreographer Josh Rhodes’ lively social dances help plant the action in different eras, when social dancing was the most vibrant part of life in South Carolina and beyond. Jane Greenwood’s period costumes let us long for the days of proper dresses and suits and easy overalls.
The vibrant cast shines in most of the songs and exudes Carolina courtesy and diction. Wilcox could move with more emotion when he discovers that his father is the worst villain ever. He stands erect in “Heartbreaker” and needs more physical direction to go ballistic. A few songs go on too long, as that historical style of repetition doesn’t always work in a musical. Some need condensing to dialogue.
The most striking song in Bright Star is the most simple. Wilcox as Jimmy Ray and his beloved Alice tug at your heart in their teary duet “I Had a Vision,” a brilliantly written song of regret where he takes the higher melody and she sings low the verse, “I have been blinded, all the lights went dim.” Incredibly sad, yet bright at the same time, that little duet defines Bright Star and is worth the admission.
Bright Star runs through Nov. 2 at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. www.theoldglobe.org.
Watch clips of the show: