Dallas — 2016 Broadway show Bright Star flickers but dimly in the mildly entertaining touring production which opened a two-week run at Winspear Opera House Tuesday night, on the AT&T Performing Arts Center Broadway Series. Indeed, one might well question whether the show, with its worn-out plot, generally shallow character development, and generally pleasant but rarely thrilling score would have made it to Broadway at all (much less national touring production) without the name of Steve Martin attached as co-author and co-composer.
It’s been well over a century since the lost-baby-as-adult-discovers-unlikely-real-mother story line has been taken seriously (Verdi’s Il trovatore of 1853 may have been the last time, and even then it drew a few snickers). By the end of the 19th century, Oscar Wilde (in The Importance of Being Earnest) and Gilbert and Sullivan (numerous times) delighted in poking fun at the formula. (Sorry for the spoiler, but the outcome was pretty obvious even before intermission, anyway.)
This viewer, however, searched in vain for indications that Martin, one of the most erudite and intelligent comic actors of our time, and his Dallas-born co-composer and co-author Edie Brickell had satire in mind. Though full of comic relief, Bright Star takes itself quite seriously as a depiction of happy endings and the triumph of good: villains are punished or repent and are redeemed, young love triumphs, and loyalty is rewarded.
Not that there aren’t a few engaging, albeit predictable, moments and characters along the way, in a tale that bounces between the 1920s and 1940s in North Carolina. Much of the action takes place in a rural setting, but Martin and Brickell placed the urban scenes in Asheville, hometown of novelist Thomas Wolfe—thus underlining the added element of a fictionalized (and conveniently sanitized) version of the southern literary Renaissance. (Martin and Brickell’s North Carolina, like Andy Griffith’s, is disturbingly all-white, at least among the principal characters. Go figure.)
The pivotal character, iron-assed literary journal editor Alice Murphy, delivers engagingly withering commentary à la Dorothy Parker, all in the name of unimpeachably high standards; Audrey Cardwell takes on the role with commanding panache, with fun-loving Lucy (Kaitlyn Davidson) and snobby but befuddled Daryl (Jeff Blumenkrantz) as her side-kick assistants and alter-egos. Toweringly tall David Gottfried earnestly portrays the aspiring and talented young author Billy Cane, opposite the appropriately sweet Liana Hunt as his love interest Margo; John Leslie Wolfe and Allison Briner-Dardenne portray Alice Murphy’s somewhat forlorn parents, with Patrick Cummings as Alice’s once-and-eventual love interest Jimmy Ray Dobbs. Jeff Austin personifies everyday evil in the role of Jimmy Ray’s proud and controlling father, while David Atkinson tackles the role of Billy’s father, a backwoodsman with a literary bent. Alas, beyond Alice, Daryl, and Lucy, Bright Star gives little for the other actors or director Walter Robbie to work with.
The lineage of Bright Star stretches back through the tradition of the musicals Oklahoma! and Big River—that is, shows that distilled American musical idioms from the hinterland for a commercial Broadway audience. However, like jazz and gospel, bluegrass is as much a way of life and a way of seeing the world as it is a musical genre, and inherently loses much of its punch the minute it’s gussied up and put on a stage with a coat of Broadway varnish. Successfully mimicking—or even appropriating—source material can produce masterpieces (e.g., the “jazz” opera Porgy and Bess), and Bright Star is, even in its weakest moments, a decent imitation of real bluegrass—keyword: imitation. Throwing a mandolin, a fiddle, an autoharp and a banjo on a stage doesn’t really make it bluegrass, even if it sounds a lot like it at times. (The producers call it Americana rather than bluegrass.)
Another inherently problematic issue for Bright Star is that authentic bluegrass, though often containing a vocal element, is a genre driven by instruments. The Broadway musical, on the other hand, is always vocally driven. This issue hits hard in the musically bland Act I: real bluegrass, with its life-blood pulse and pungent timbres, can make the heart beat faster and the skin tingle, and the score of Bright Star never even comes close before intermission. As in the acting, the singing was uniformly adequate but with little opportunity for anyone to shine.
Act II looked up musically, however, beginning with the entr’acte featuring the onstage instrumental ensemble, ably conducted by P. Jason Yarcho and including piano, multiple accordions, banjo, autoharp, fiddle, percussion, and mandolin. A touch of urban gospel influence enlivened the choral anthem “Sun Is Gonna Shine”; that reliable operetta and opera standby, the drinking song, showed up with a winning dose of western swing in “Another Round” (albeit with the rhyme of “liquor” and “quicker” shamelessly stolen from Ogden Nash).
Josh Rhodes’ athletic and pleasantly asymmetrical choreography, though not particularly connected to bluegrass, injected appealing energy within the framework of the lean, rustic scenery by Eugene Lee; Jane Greenwood’s costumes very efficiently and subtly clued the shifts from urban to rural and from 1920s to 1940s.
G-rated Bright Star never quite takes off, but it never completely fizzles; this polished production engages but the star never really shines.