SALT LAKE CITY — Audiences in this state will shortly have more than enough chances to see Bright Star. Local companies, recognizing the musical’s appeal to Utah patrons, will be quick to secure the performance rights as soon as they become available. Before long, it will be coming to a Hale Centre Theatre or arts council near you. But you will never again have the opportunity to see it like this. The national tour currently playing at Pioneer Theatre features the show’s radiant original star, Carmen Cusack, who is reprising her Tony-nominated role as Alice Murphy before saying farewell to the production when it moves on from Salt Lake City. It would be a crime for you to miss one of the most captivating and intense performances this city has seen in years.
Bright Star, with a book by Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin) and songs by Martin and Edie Brickell, traces the events of Alice’s life as a young woman in North Carolina in the 1920’s as well as twenty-odd years later, after she has become the influential editor of a literary magazine. The scenes set in the 1920’s focus on Alice’s romance with Jimmy Ray Dobbs (played by Patrick Cummings), the son of the mayor of her hometown of Zebulon. Jimmy Ray’s father, Josiah Dobbs (played by Jeff Austin), disapproves of Alice and sabotages her relationship with his son, setting in motion a series of events that first send Alice to college in Chapel Hill, and eventually to the editorship of the Asheville Southern Journal. A couple of decades later, aspiring writer Billy Cane (played by A. J. Shively), freshly returned from the war, walks into Alice’s office and unwittingly sets her up for a reckoning with the past. I’m being deliberately vague, but as Alice puts it in the show’s opening lines, “If you knew my story, you’d have a hard time / Believin’ me, you’d think I was lyin’.”
The fact that Bright Star isn’t based on a movie is as welcome as its lovely, bluegrass-tinged songs, which include such standouts as “Way Back in the Day,” “Whoa, Mama,” “Asheville,” and “I Had a Vision.” Some minor lyrical quibbles aside, it’s one of the most bracing new scores I’ve heard in some time. Moreover, it’s superbly performed. Whereas most musical tours feature a skeleton crew of about a half dozen musicians buoyed up by a team of synthesizers, this production of Bright Star brings the exact same number of players audiences would have seen on Broadway, performing the orchestrations as they were originally intended.
Director Walter Bobbie emphasizes the score’s central importance to the atmosphere by placing the musicians prominently onstage, housed in a wooden frame that doubles as a mobile set piece. Beneath the spell of the band and Japhy Weideman’s sumptuous amber lighting, what appears to be the bare bricks of the back wall of the stage crack open to reveal deep country horizons. It’s a fluid, time-shifting enchantment that extends from the seamless transitions to Josh Rhodes’s graceful, longing choreography in “Asheville.” It’s guileless, it’s charming, it’s one of the reasons I go to the theatre in the first place.
Almost half the cast comes from the New York production. Alongside Cusack, Shively and Jeff Blumenkrantz (the latter as Alice’s assistant editor Daryl), make the strongest impressions in roles they originated. Blumenkrantz and newcomer Kaitlyn Davidson (playing Daryl’s coworker Lucy), bring impeccable timing to their comic sequences. Cummings (as Jimmy Ray) and Maddie Shea Baldwin (as Billy’s love interest, Margo) acquit themselves well in parts they previously understudied.
But make no mistake, this show belongs to Carmen Cusack. I don’t have enough superlatives for her. In a word, she is extraordinary. The last time I watched a performance of this caliber was when I saw her in New York. Before that, it was someone named Audra McDonald. That’s the kind of company Cusack belongs in. The way she traverses the twenty-year chasm between her two Alices is a magical, lyrical tour de force. Her voice embodies the score as if it were written for her because, in fact, much of it was. The script features some plot points one could describe as Dickensian and overwrought, and some audiences members probably see them coming a mile away. But there isn’t a hint of melodrama about Cusack’s interpretation. Though she brings a commanding tempest of a presence to the stage, she channels it all in honest, subtle choices that not only make one believe that anything is possible, but that it’s inevitable as well.
Perhaps the hardest thing to believe is that Pioneer Theatre is hosting a touring production in the first place. But whatever bargain PTC artistic director Karen Azenberg struck with the devil to make this happen, she definitely got the better end of the deal. So did local audiences, because it’s almost as if the show’s twenty-year flashbacks have taken the ticket prices along for the ride. It’s been at least that long since the most expensive ticket to a touring Broadway musical has been such a bargain in this state. By way of comparison, the same money that will buy you a front-and-center seat to see Bright Star and its spectacular original lead will relegate you to the last five rows of the third balcony downtown at the Eccles.
When Bright Star becomes the next show to hit every community theatre along the Wasatch Front, I’ll be thrilled that it will mean fewer slots for the likes of Shrek or Disney adaptations, but I have a hard time imagining it without Cusack. It isn’t every day that audiences can see someone like this in Salt Lake City—and for such a low cost. She’s transcendent, she’s triumphant, she’ll break your heart and make it whole again. Do not miss her.
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