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For Carmen Cusack, A.J. Shively, and Bright Star, the Fourth Time's the Charm

Cusack and Shively bring their performances back to the West Coast where they began.

When it premiered on Broadway in 2016, Steve Martin and Edie Brickell's bluegrass musical Bright Star attracted a small but dedicated following. The cast album landed on the Billboard charts, it won the 2016 Outer Critics Circle Awards for Best Musical and Best Score, and earned five Tony nominations. Overshadowed by the Hamilton juggernaut, Bright Star played just over 100 performances before closing.

Sixteen months after it said goodbye to the Cort Theatre, Bright Star has returned to the West Coast (where it premiered, in 2014, at the Old Globe). Running at the Los Angeles-based Ahmanson Theatre through November 19, and then the Curran Theatre in San Francisco November 28-December 17, this mounting features a host of its original cast members, including Tony-nominated leading lady Carmen Cusack and Drama Desk-nominated featured actor A.J. Shively.

Cusack and Shively, who play Alice Murphy and Billy Cane, have been with the show since its workshops. This marks the fourth full production where they've played these roles and they sure have a good story to tell.

Carmen Cusack in Steve Martin and Edie Brickell's Bright Star at the Ahmanson Theatre.
(© Craig Schwartz Photography)

It's been more than a year since Bright Star closed on Broadway. Were you afraid to come back to it?
Carmen Cusack: I wasn't ready for Bright Star to end on Broadway when it did. I don't think any of us were. It's a wonderful family to come back to and recreate with new colors and vibrancy. But I'll be honest. I had my reservations about coming back after so long. In the course of the year, you change and you grow. I was worried that whatever that performance was on Broadway wasn't going to be the same.

But it's OK. I have evolved and learned and grown more, and, in some ways, have become more confident and fearless. This show is a gift that keeps on giving. It's so dear to my heart, and the story is so incredibly strong and full. I don't know what I was worried about.

A.J. Shively: I had reservations, too, because it had been so long. But we did a concert in Town Hall six months after we closed, and that was so effortless. Everything fit together like a puzzle.

How is it working with a new cast?
A.J.: They come with their own point of view and fully realized performances that bring new energy. They knew the material better than we did by the end of the first week. Luckily, the Margo and Jimmy Ray out here [Maddie Shea Baldwin and Patrick Cummings] were the understudies in New York and got to perform, so there was already a beginning of a relationship there because of the fact that we knew them as actors very well.

Carmen: They kicked us all into high gear because they were all keen to learn. I've been so lucky in who they've cast me with on every occasion. Each actor has brought their own interpretation to the role, and it always allowed me to reinvent. It always brings more out of me because I'm listening to them. Every time they've cast this, I feel like I've learned and become a better actress.

A.J.: I feel the same way.

A.J. Shively in the Broadway production of Bright Star at the Cort Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

Has anything changed from the Broadway run to the tour?

Carmen: In a sense, it's a newer rendition of the Broadway version.

A.J.: There are some adjustments. Some new lyrics. Should we keep you in suspense?

A.J.: A couple of numbers have been reimagined for the better. Choreographer Josh Rhodes tweaked the end of Act 1 in a very exciting way.

Carmen: That affects the beginning of Act 2. It just continues to get stronger and stronger. I didn't even know you could do that. I just thought you had to bring back the Broadway version of the show on tour.

Are you both doing the further engagements of this Bright Star tour beyond the San Francisco stop?

Carmen: I've agreed to do Salt Lake City.

A.J.: As have I.

Carmen: At this point, that's as far as negotiations have gotten.

A.J.: After Salt Lake City, there's a break and they go to Houston.

Carmen: Which is my hometown! Crazy.

You both have strong ties to Los Angeles. What does it mean to you to do the show here?

A.J.: I have a lot of family here. I was born in Pasadena. I'm staying with my grandparents while I'm out here. A lot of people in my family had tickets to see Bright Star during the summer of 2016, so they didn't end up getting to see it on Broadway at all. Now they can, and they already have. My grandparents came back for a second time and we've only been playing for a week.

Carmen: I'm based here, so I get to sleep in my own bed! [laughs]