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The 2016 Broadway musical Bright Star is destined to be a staple on area stages for years to come because of its bluegrass score and a storyline set in North Carolina. In addition, co-writer Steve Martin now has strong local connections through his appearances at the annual World of Bluegrass festival in Raleigh.
The musical's first locally produced run is being staged by NCSU's University Theatre. You can always count on stellar production values there, and Bright Star is no exception. The show has an appealing cast, beautifully-controlled direction, and a sparkling bluegrass band, making it easy to overlook some of the material's weaknesses.
The musical was developed by actor-comedian Steve Martin and singer-songwriter Edie Brickell after collaborating on several albums. Based on reportedly true events, the story switches back and forth between Asheville and Zebulon as well as between the 1920s and the 1940s.
The plot concerns Alice Murphy, who, as a bright young teenager in 1923, longs to get out of her routine, rural life in Zebulon. She wants to go to college but falls in love with Jimmy Ray Dobbs and later bears his child. Jimmy Ray wants to marry Alice, but his stern father, the town's mayor, forbids it. He tells his son he'll take care of the problem, making a deal with Alice's concerned parents to have the baby adopted anonymously.
Skipping forward to 1945, Alice has become the successful editor of The Asheville Southern Journal, where she's approached by aspiring young writer Billy Cane, recently back from the war. He's left his almost-girlfriend, Margo, back in Zebulon to try to get his stories published in Alice's prestigious publication. Alice encourages him to keep at it while she attempts to find out what happened to her child. Billy's invitation for Alice to visit his hometown sets in motion a number of revelations and reunions.
The story has so many strands it must rush through numerous short scenes, leaving little time for character development. It also relies heavily on clichés and predictable plot points. Despite the painful and dramatic events that drive the story, the script downplays them for a lighter, feel-good approach, tying up the loose ends hurriedly for a happy ending.
Martin and Brickell's 20 twangy songs are pleasant listening but rarely memorable. They don't advance the plot but merely repeat emotions and events already established. It doesn't help that Brickell's lyrics are bland and too often repetitive.
Happily, University Theatre manages to minimize those liabilities in a warm, highly satisfying production. The technical elements are some of its most impressive. Jayme Mellema's brilliant unit set wows you as soon as you take your seat. Its appealing wooden structure, from the crazy quilt of planks that imitate a mountain range to the barn-like roof beams that look like trees, envelop the audience on the Titmus Theatre's "widescreen" stage. Dozens of lanterns perched on ledges, hanging from posts and floating magically like stars, flicker and glow in Joshua Reaves' lighting design, which also encompasses a range of subtle colors and shadows. Laura J. Parker's costume, hair, and makeup designs give real period flavor to both eras depicted. Kevin Wright's sound design is riveting in several special effects sequences and marvelously unnoticed in the miking of the singers.
On opening night, everyone in the cast was confident and well rehearsed, each projecting a likable, individualized characterization under Rachel Klem's expert direction. Her staging had marvelous unity of style, executed with smooth precision. Although Alice Murphy is written to be played by one actor in both time periods, Klem's decision to cast different ones for each period enhanced believability. More importantly, Klem's decision to cast the two Alices and Billy with African American actors added depth to the plot's relationships and revelations.
Tina Morris-Anderson's portrayal of the grown-up Alice was well served by her rich, powerful singing, capable of drawing the audience in immediately in the opening number, "If You Knew My Story," and of raising the roof in the finale, "At Long Last." She showed good range in her witty banter with Billy and in her heartfelt emotions at what might have been. Aysia Slade's young Alice was playful and charming, giving voice to high hopes in the love duet "What Could Be Better" opposite Chris Inhulsen's sincere, defiant Jimmy Ray.
Lauren Knott made a sweetly understanding Margo, pairing nicely with Benaiah Barnes' Billy. Barnes' natural charm and confident singing made him an audience favorite, even if his happy-go-lucky characterization didn't always indicate a soldier's and writer's depths. Danny Norris made a strong impression as Mayor Dobbs, investing the stereotyped villain with iron will and chilling selfishness, while displaying a powerful voice in "A Man's Gotta Do." Cal Bumgardner and Morgan Piner played Daryl and Lucy, who work for Alice in her publication's office, with great comic relish, he with snooty criticisms and she with seductive suggestions. Piner also was the choreographer, whose hoedowns and barroom dances were given energetic spirit by the whole cast.
Other notable performances in the 18-member cast include the older Jimmy Ray, with whom Alice reconnects (a moving Daryl Ray Carliles); Jimmy's father, Daddy Cane (a lovable David Burney); Alice's parents Daddy and Mama Murphy (a gruff Linh Schladweiler and a quietly loving Verlene Oates); and Dr. Norquist, who comforts young Alice (a kindly John C. McIlwee).
The nine-member band, seated on an upstage platform, played with toe-tapping pizazz under music director Diane Petteway's sure hand, making it hard not to watch them instead of the actors.
The production should not fail to please and is easily recommended for its beautiful visuals, sparkling band, and winning cast.
Bright Star continues through Sunday, June 23. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.