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Bright Star: Theater review by Adam Feldman
"If you knew my story, you’d have a good story to tell,” sings Alice (Carmen Cusack) in the introductory number of Bright Star. But would you know how to tell it? That’s where Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, cowriters of this gawky tall tale, fall short. The musical toggles between the 1940s, when Alice is the tough-minded editor of a Southern literary journal, and the 1920s, when she’s a coltish teenager with her heart set on Jimmy Ray (a solid Paul Alexander Nolan), the son of their small town’s huffy mayor (Michael Mulheren). The stories in these time lines eventually meet as the show trudges inexorably toward a second-act twist that is at once preposterous and head-smackingly predictable.
Bright Star aspires to be what the older Alice asks from a young fiction writer (A.J. Shively): “a sweeping tale of pain and redemption.” But it cries out for an editor’s sharp blue pencil. Sweeping? In lieu of the color that the story seems to call for, Walter Bobbie’s production is often actively plain, as though trying to hide its central bathos in beige. Painful? For the audience, perhaps, thanks to shoddy craftsmanship that saddles likable, plucky bluegrass music with lyrics that run from workmanlike to egregious. It does, however, have a genuine redeeming feature in Cusack. It helps that Alice is by far the best-defined character in the show, and that Martin has given her the funniest lines. But Cusack is distinctive and immediately interesting, convincing at playing Alice at both ages, with a voice that is full of beautiful surprises. If not much else, the musical does right by its star, the bright spot in a sky of murk.—Adam Feldman
Cort Theatre (Broadway). Music by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell. Lyrics by Brickell. Book by Martin. Directed by Walter Bobbie. With Carmen Cusack, Paul Alexander Nolan. Running time: 2hrs 15mins. One intermission.
Follow Adam Feldman on Twitter: @FeldmanAdam