Pioneer’s Bright Star is Out of This World

By Jennifer Mustoe

Pioneer Theatre Company‘s regional premiere of the Tony-nominated Bright Starwritten and composed by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, is a brilliant thing to behold and a show like no other. Set in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Bright Star tells the story of Alice Murphy, played dazzlingly by Tony-nominated Carmen Cusack, and her love for her teenage sweetheart Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Patrick Cummings). The plot is simple, improbable and even impossible, and completely magical. I will share the barest of summaries, because the story is only a small part of this mesmerizing production. Alice is from meager means, Jimmy Ray from wealth and privilege. NO-ONE except the  young lovers wants them together, not Alice’s Bible-thumping father Daddy Murphy (Stephen Lee Anderson), her timid mother Mama Murphy (Allison Briner-Dardenne), not Jimmy Ray’s unscrupulous, soulless father Mayor Josiah Dobbs (Jeff Austin). Their love ends in a teenage pregnancy and the only two who want to keep and raise the baby are the young parents themselves. The fathers contrive to keep this from happening.

Bright Star flips back and forth from when Alice and Jimmy Ray are teens, and a little over 20 years later, when Alice is the editor at the The Asheville Southern Journal.  A young newly-returned soldier, Billy Cane (A.J. Shively) leaves his father, Daddy Cane (David Atkinson) and childhood sweetheart Margo Crawford (Maddie Shea Baldwin) and brings his short stories to the Journal. Billy encounters the lively, funny employees at the Journal: Daryl Ames (Jeff Blumenkrantz) and Lucy Grant (Kaitlyn Davidson) and then presents his short stories to Alice, Miss Murphy. The plot switches back and forth, but it is easy to know where you are through costuming (Costume Design Jane Greenwood) and the moving set pieces that delineate spaces (Scenic Design Eugene Lee). I met two of the actors after the show. Rather humorously, Jeff Austin said to me: “I’m really a nice man.” (He plays the villian.) He says he often gets booed a lot at curtain call. Well, he is a nice man and he was booed. Good acting, I’d say. The entire cast is brilliant and all are perfect in their roles. Ames and Grant are comic relief and are adorable. Baldwin as Billy’s sweetheart is darling. Shively’s Billy is charming and sweet and deep. Those that are parents are all as heart-warming and heart-rending as real parenting is: Atkinson, Anderson, Briner-Dardenne–they all get it. And many of the actors must sing some of the most emotion-filled lyrics I’ve ever heard–and all notes are clear and beautiful.

The real thing that makes Bright Star stand out, though, is the marvelous music by Martin and Brickell, which is played by the fantastic bluegrass band that resides onstage in a shack structure that moves easily from side to side as a set piece. The music, and the performers who play and sing it, makes this show what it is. Music Director/Conductor/Piano/Accordion P. Jason Yarcho leads his pickin’ band with flair and expertise. The twang of the banjo (George Guthrie), the strum of the guitar (Andrew Zinsmeister), the whine and hum from the fiddle/violin(Martha McDonnell), the thwump of the bass (Skip Ward),  the beat of the drum (Steve Bartosik), the sweet melody from the mandolin (Wayne Fugate), the lovely tones from the viola (David Gold), and the sweetness of the cello (David Mergen) emerge from the shack and it sounds as if it’s from heaven. I saw these fine musicians walk out after the performance and congratulated them for their fine job. But it meant more to me than just seeing these women and men who contribute so much to Bright Star. My son is a musician and I’ve seen his lifetime of practicing the instruments he plays. As each of these musicians walked away from me, some holding instrument cases, I knew the thousands of rehearsal hours and dedication that accompanied these folks. Lifetimes of perfecting their art. Rob Berman has taken his marvelous cast and created a gorgeous vocal story. And Cusak’s voice can take this hillbilly music and brings it to perfection in all its inflections, dips, and highs. She sobs through an entire song and still sounds like an angel, using an accent that is deep, strong, but completely understandable.

I tried to write my review last night, but I was too overwhelmed with the organic quality of the show to be able to articulate how I feel about what happened onstage. There is so much movement. Though there are few Big Dance Numbers, there is dancing in many of the numbers, but the movement of the show is what’s remarkable. I saw “round” movement. Let me explain. For instance, when Billy is bringing his short stories to the Journal, they are all in blue folders. The ensemble takes the folders and surround Billy in a half-circle of folders–highlighting him in a halo of blue. In a round circle. In the number in the bar, the set has some bars in the front. Dancers swing under the bars in a round motion. Over and under, around and through, the actors move on the stage, sometimes through the music shack, showing to me the movement of the story, the character arcs, the shifting of emotions, plot line, life. It dips and swirls, always moving, always changing. My hands are shaking as I type this. Bright Star is a transformational piece, and to think of it without the movement choreographed by Josh Rhodes would feel as if an actual living person had been kept out of the show. Director Walter Bobbie has found the purist vibe for Bright Star and has let it shine.

I have purposely left out much of the plot. Don’t wiki the info. Just come see the show. Bring your tweens and teens, your friends, your parents, your grandparents. Bittersweetly, this is Cusak’s last time playing Alice, the role she originated when Bright Star opened in San Diego. So do. not. miss her. Do. Not. This show is as sweet, and deep, and pure as the melodies it produces. After the show, before the light even went completely black, the entire audience leapt to its feet, a cliche I proudly use. I’ve never seen anything like that in my life. The pure joy of Bright Star at Pioneer Theatre Company is something no-one should miss. It is a stellar show, start to finish.

Pioneer Theatre Company presents Bright Star by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell
Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, The University of Utah, 300 1400 E #205, Salt Lake City, UT 84112
January 12-27, 2018, Monday-Thursday 7:00 PM, Friday, Saturday 7:30 PM,  Saturday Matinee 2:00 PM
Tickets: $42 (day of show $47), $64 (day of show $69)
Contact:  801-581-6961
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