Anna Holloway review: Lyric’s 'Bright Star' shines
“Bright Star” is the creation of Steve Martin and Edie Brickell; both are expert musicians and storytellers, and “Bright Star” shows off all of their skills. The show makes good use of traditional American musical forms to tell a story set in post-World War II North Carolina. It has moments of humor and pathos, passion and horror. It is, in the end, a story of hope and no little magic.
The story is told by Alice Murphy, played by Bligh Voth, although it seems at first to be about someone else. Returning from the war, Billy Cane finds his elderly father doing well, and he learns that his mother has recently passed away; Billy reconnects with his old friend Margo (Patty Irwin), who runs the town bookstore/library, and begins his career as a writer. Played with great flexibility and range by Ken Singleton, Billy and his life are the apparent focus of the show.
As he pursues his dream to become published in the regional literary magazine, Billy moves to Asheville and meets a helpful editor, Alice. After Alice meets Billy, she reflects on her life through flashbacks. Voth plays the role solidly, selling both the past and the present.
In flashback we meet Alice’s early love, Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Michael Isaac), who is also the son of the mayor. The inevitable class conflict — Mayor Dobbs does not want his son to marry a poor farmer’s daughter — leads to the inevitable defiance and pregnancy. Mayor Dobbs, played by Jonathan Beck Reed, proves himself a thorough-going villain, and the damages that are carried into the future can all be squarely laid at his door.
Despite these dark early elements, the show has moments of comedy. The publishing staff, played with just the right levels of dry broadness by Zac Reynolds and Lexi Windsor, delivers nicely measured leavening. And there is a truly uplifting ending.
Voth does a spectacular job playing both the older and younger Alice; the different levels of maturity are clear, although we don’t actually know her older age until very near the end of the play. Isaac, who performs Billy Ray beautifully, is less clear; in part this is due to the fact that he looks his older age in the flashbacks. His performance is working against his makeup, to a degree. Reed, who is more commonly seen in leading man roles, is a truly evil human being as Mayor Dobbs; it’s to his great credit that Dobbs is still a fully human, rather than merely cardboard, villain. Irwin gives a solid performance as Billy’s old school friend, booster and hopeful romantic interest. Singleton’s energetic and well-crafted work, which runs through the show like a unifying thread, holds the story up.
Directed by Michael Baron with choreography by Ashley Wells, the production has a very comfortable, real-life feel. Jeffery Meek’s costumes are very helpful to following the time changes, and the scenic/lighting design by Shawn Irish served the story beautifully. Brian Hamilton deserves special mention as music director; the music has the overall feel of back porch bluegrass, while demanding some serious musicianship in playing the score. Changes in rhythms, creative uses of dissonance, and precision of timing are only the most obvious demands on this small band of players, assembled and led by Hamilton.
There is some ambiguity in the timing and focus of the story; it’s not always clear whose story it is. In part, this is due to the construction of the flashbacks; after the undefined back and forth in Act 1, Alice’s past is referred to late in Act 2 as both '19 years ago’ and ’23 years ago;’ temporal distance is important to the storyline. How much of the confusion is due to the script and how much to choices made by the director is not clear, but in the end, it falls always on the director: Script issues must be addressed. Dates in the program (1945 and 1922?) might be helpful.
This temporal ambiguity is a trivial matter overall; “Bright Star” is a positive and beautiful piece of theatre. See the show and let the timelines float; it will all work out eventually. The production is a buoyant and delightful theatrical experience.
“Bright Star” runs through April 28 at Lyric in the Plaza; visit the website at www.LyricTheatreOKC.org or call the box office at 405-524-9312.