Farmer's Branch — “If you knew my story,” sings Alice Murphy (Lucy Shea) in the foot-stompin’ opening number of Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s delightfully twangy musical Bright Star, “you’d have a good story to tell.” She’s not wrong—the tall tale at the emotional heart of Bright Star may strain credulity, but the musical sells the hell out of it, moving along with such verve and charm that the audience can’t help but buy the goods on offer. And Firehouse Theatre’s production is a sort of theatrical perfect storm, a winning combination of rousing material and an incredibly talented collection of artists.
Small-town boy Billy Cane (Jason Craig West) is back from war (World War II, that is) and, although mourning the loss of his mother who died while he was overseas, is looking to honor her memory and make his mark on the world as a writer. Knowing that he can’t do that in sleepy Hayes Creek, he bids farewell to his confidante Margo (Emily Emmett), secretly pining for him, and heads off to Asheville, South Carolina to try and sell his stories to the Asheville Southern Journal, an acclaimed literary magazine, headed up by the seemingly dour editor-in-chief Alice Murphy. Charmed by Billy’s brazen lying to get his foot in the door, Alice buys a story off him for the princely sum of $10 and tells him to use his talents finding and writing about “a sweeping tale of pain and redemption.” Little does Billy know that Alice could well be speaking of her own tempestuous life, as we’re swept into the past to see Alice in the 1920s as a headstrong, but sweet, teenager in another backwoods town who falls in love with the mayor’s son, Jimmy Ray (Alex Branton). But their love, and a scandalous pregnancy, poses a threat to Mayor Dobb (Neil Rogers)’s plans for his son’s future, and he undertakes a dire act to protect that future, sparking the tragedy and eventual redemption that follows. Certain details are here elided or omitted to preserve the joy of the story’s gradual unspooling, but suffice it to say, we end as with any classic comedy, with a wedding (or two) on the way, and all’s well with the world.
Director Tyler Jeffrey Adams returns for his fourth year collaborating with Firehouse, and here wrangles a large cast and numerous live musical elements into a wonderfully cohesive whole—not a weak link among them. Each actor, even in non-speaking roles, is entirely present and reactive to the action occurring, and even a flub or two (a doorbell bit the dust rather spectacularly in Act II) were played off without a hitch—it’s definitely a cast that thinks on its feet. Shea gives a beautifully layered performance as Alice at every stage; her performance ensures that the audience is always aware of which version of the character they’re watching, but beyond that, the character’s emotional arc is fully realized as she grows from impetuous teen into the competent but haunted woman we meet in the 1940s. Her chemistry with Branton’s Jimmy Ray is palpable, and their tear-jerking rendition of Act II’s mournful “I Had A Vision” may be the high point of the performance. Branton himself ages his impetuous character believably, and he gets some of the biggest laughs in Act II; additionally, he gets the chance to show off his musical chops on both guitar and piano.
West’s Billy, who in lesser hands could easily be overplayed, here has a wholesome, small-town charm without descending into caricature. He pings nicely off his two potential love interests, the winsome (thankfully not cloying) Margo, and the brassy Lucy (Morgan Maxey), Alice’s assistant, who blows the doors off the joint in her big, boozy “Another Round”—a high point not only for Maxey’s dancing (a particularly daring flip made the audience gasp) but for the most chest-forward acting this reviewer’s ever seen. Maxey’s Lucy is paired with the deliciously tart Daryl, another of Alice’s assistants and an aspiring, oft-shot-down writer himself, who gets big laughs, especially after the character’s sub-textual sexuality is made flagrantly textual. Sonny Franks’ Daddy Cane—Billy’s father—shows off not only his comedic chops (a story that opens with “One day I was out frog-gigging…” had the audience in stitches) but his musical talents, playing both banjo and guitar with élan. And proving that the best actors can make the most of the smallest roles, ensemble member Daniel Mooney not only got laughs as a lovelorn customer, pining after an oblivious Margo, but also got the chance to show off his violin skills. Truly, the cast is an embarrassment of riches.
Additional band members are perched in a loft above the action, with pianist Chris Cotwell stationed onstage in the wooden A-frame that stood in for multiple locations, rotating and splitting apart to fit the action. Scenic designer Brandon Tijerina manages to keep the stage design, mostly consisting of country-esque bric-a-brac, looking coherent, and the action from scene to scene is clear, never muddied. Kelly McCain’s choreography was loose and lively, and well-executed across the board. And costume designer Victor Newman Brockwell, in the challenging position of costuming not only an extensive cast, but designing pieces from different decades, rose magnificently to the challenge. To a man, the costumes are exquisite—a burgundy suit on Alice and Katharine Hepburn-esque wide-legged trousers on Lucy were particular standouts. Musical director Mark Mullino keeps the music hopping and, with a few exceptions, manages the increasingly rare feat of having live music onstage that doesn’t overpower the actors. Some adjustments could be made to the sound levels on a few actors, notably Shea and Branton, who were occasionally drowned out (particularly in Act I’s “Whoa, Mama”) at the performance reviewed, but it’s a minor issue.
It’s the luck of the draw in many ways as to which shows are hits and which are misses. Bright Star, despite Steve Martin’s star power and positive reviews, closed after a fairly short run on Broadway. Here’s hoping the show finds new life and new fans in regional performances; if they’re as good as Firehouse Theatre’s production, it’s a sure thing.