Steve Martin and Edie Brickell's Musical Bright Star Needs Some Serious Work

You can't have a bluegrass musical without a good barn dance.
You can't have a bluegrass musical without a good barn dance.
Joan Marcus

Bright Star is a slickly produced, well-cast musical with superb arrangements by August Eriksmoen, great playing from a bluegrass band augmented by strings, and two catchy numbers by the music writers, Steve Martin and Edie Brickell. But there’s a catch.

All this talent and care has been lavished on a product that should still be in the workshop.

Martin’s book is populated by characters with half-assed plans (or characters who don’t need to exist at all), threaded together by an improbable coincidence more appropriate to opera buffo or farce.

Billy Cane returns from World War II to his home in the the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, wanting to become a writer. But instead of using the G.I. Bill to go to Vanderbilt, he’s going to camp out on the doorstep of the Asheville Literary Journal with a forged reference from Thomas Wolfe.

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Tough editor Alice Murphy made Hemingway cry in her office, but she gives newcomer Cane an advance without publishing any stories and sends him home to write what he knows.

It’s clear from screenplays like Shopgirl that Martin knows Los Angeles, but he’s lost in early 20th century North Carolina.

A weak book wouldn’t be such an impediment if the lyrics were great, but Brickell isn’t up to the task of putting simple yet eloquent words into the mouths of ordinary folks.

Carmen Cusack as Alice Murphy, in yellow
Carmen Cusack as Alice Murphy, in yellow
Joan Marcus

The reflexive, repetitive words of Brickell’s hit “What I Am” work as a self-contained three minute song, but similar lyrics fail in a musical when a character reveals his inner feelings: “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do when a man’s gotta do what he’s got to.” No shit, Gertrude Stein.

Eugene Lee’s minimal, adaptable set of moving pieces works well, with a small open house on casters doing double duty as a rolling bandstand for the musicians as well as a cabin or bar as required.

Conductor/keyboardist Rob Berman and his musicians sound like a bluegrass band that’s played together for years, doing their best with Martin and Brickell's adequate if generally uninspired score.

A.J. Shively and Carmen Cusack adequately portray the leads Billy Cane and Alice Murphy, but if I were casting director, I’d give those roles to Jimmy Ray Dobbs and Hannah Elless (the love interests of Murphy and Cane, respectively), both of whom exude more stage presence and sincerity.

Old Globe Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way, San Diego; through Nov. 2. (619) 234-5623, www.theoldglobe.org.


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