Those in the market for an old-fashioned, feel-good show should check out Bright Star, Steve Martin and Edie Brickell's charming but somewhat underdeveloped new musical at Broadway's Cort Theatre. Allegedly based on a true story, Bright Star has the special distinction of being the only new musical this spring not derived from an earlier work. This is admirable on today's risk-averse Rialto, but the resulting production helps us understand why so many creative teams base their musicals on tried-and-true properties.
It's 1945 and Billy Cane (A.J. Shively) has just come home to North Carolina from the war. He is greeted by his father (Stephen Bogardus serving the dad humor) and Margo Crawford (the funny and adorable Hannah Elless), a bookstore clerk with a thing for Billy. A budding writer, Billy wants to have his stories published in the Asheville Southern Journal, edited by the dreaded Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack, doing her best Miranda Priestly). In order to find out why Alice is so bitter, we flash back to 1923, when she was just a precocious girl in love with Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Paul Alexander Nolan), the son of Mayor Josiah Dobbs (Michael Mulheren). Obviously, the mayor didn't approve of his son running around with the underage daughter of such a lowly family. A cruel series of events led Alice to her present life as the South's premier old-maid editrix. We get the sense that Billy and Alice may have more in common than just work, however, even as she hacks into one of his stories, telling him to excise 300 words and cut the first paragraph: "Turn it into a lullaby because it put me to sleep," she tells him without looking up from her desk.
It's a shame that Bright Star didn't have as clear-eyed an editor as Alice. The rhymes are often forced and the lyrics repetitive: Alice sings the title of the opening number, "If You Knew My Story," no fewer than eight times in the show's first few minutes. In that same song, she rhymes "time" with "lying" and "stream" with "me." Mayor Dobbs begins the song "A Man's Gotta Do" with the ludicrously circular lyric, "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do / When a man's gotta do what he's got to." Such redundancies are especially apparent through Mulheren's deliberate sprechstimme. All jowls, he annunciates every syllable, a normally admirable trait in a musical-theater actor that here serves to shine a light on the laziness of the text.
Luckily, Martin and Brickell's delightful bluegrass music keeps us blissfully distracted most of the time. The title song is memorably jaunty, and just try getting the lively Act 2 opener, ''Sun's Gonna Shine," out of your head. Music director Rob Berman leads a stellar orchestra that lives partly within a rolling cabin onstage and partly in the wings. Fiddler Martha McDonnell shines particularly bright.
It seems natural that director Walter Bobbie (who employed a similar style in the now 20-year-old revival of Chicago) would feature the band so prominently in his fleet-footed staging. Eugene Lee's minimalist set effortlessly glides across the stage as one scene bleeds into the next, with simple furniture pieces transforming into a train cabin, an office, and a car, as necessary. The liquid nature of the production is facilitated by Josh Rhodes' lyrical choreography, which helps tell the story without completely consuming the actors.
Cusack leads the cast with one of the most exciting performances of the season. She slays us with her powerful vocals and soulful delivery of "At Long Last," a true eleven-o'clock number. Whether she's playing 16 or 38, she is equally believable, taking us on a complete journey.
It helps that she has a first-rate leading man in Nolan, whose interactions with Cusack range from playful to downright hot. With tousled hair (attractive design by Tom Watson) and a mischievous grin, he steals every heart in the room.
In fact, Nolan's sexiness verges on vampiric when the play flashes back to 1945: Despite being two decades his senior, Jimmy Ray doesn't look a day older than Billy. We get the sense that something is not quite real about anything we see through the soft touch of Japhy Weideman's lighting. Jane Greenwood's costumes are pressed and clean, even when worn by working stiffs like Bogardus' Daddy Cane. Everything about Bright Star looks and feels like a particularly good production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, a sepia-toned memory of a small-town America that never really existed.
There's nothing wrong with engaging in a little lighthearted nostalgia, but what does it mean when one's idyllic vision of North Carolina in the early 20th century is entirely devoid of African-Americans (as is the case with this cast)? What does it mean when the one gay character in the story (a tragically underutilized Jeff Blumenkrantz) serves only to facilitate straight coupling and comic relief? These are not questions that Martin and Brickell seem interested in entertaining, but the production raises them regardless.
Judging from the moist eyes that surrounded me during a recent matinee, these ham-fisted oversights won't do much to dampen the enjoyment Broadway audiences get from Bright Star, a joyous new show. Still, if Martin and Brickell want to write a truly great musical, they ought to hire an Alice Murphy of their own (and lay off the sweet tea).