Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 49 / 7 December 2017
 

Carolina hoedown at the Curran

Theatre


A.J. Shively and Carmen Cusack recreate their Broadway roles as an aspiring writer and a prestigious magazine editor, each with interwoven backstories, in the touring production of "Bright Star" at the Curran Theatre. Photo: Craig Schwartz
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It's once upon a time with an achy-breaky heart and a whole heap of happily-ever-afters. "Bright Star" has arrived at the Curran Theatre in a touring production after its short Broadway run last year, and it very much wants to be liked. Often enough, that's easy to do as a lively pop-tinged bluegrass score, an engaging if implausible story, and some excellent performances come together in a production of deceptive simplicity. There are significant stumbles, but the musical is big on forgiveness that can be extended to the show itself.

The biggest names behind the musical are not ones associated with musicals. Singer-songwriter Edie Brickell and comedian-turned-serious-guy Steve Martin wrote the songs and collaborated on a story that even the central character acknowledges is a fanciful yarn. "If you knew my story, you'd have a hard time believing me," she sings in the opening song. "You'd think I was lying."

But it's easy to like the character and hard not to love Carmen Cusack in the role. We first meet Alice Murphy in 1946, after she's become the brusque editor of a prestigious literary magazine in Asheville. But soon we see her 22 years earlier as a rambunctious dreamer breaking all the rules in her rural North Carolina hometown. A romance with the mayor's son has dire consequences, a burden that strengthens her drive but leaves her with a life of only professional passions. All that begins to change as Alice takes an interest in an ex-G.I. with a hunger for writing who will soon enough turn her world upside-down.

The frame of a wooden cabin provides the set's centerpiece and houses the six-piece band that plays banjo, auto harp, and accordion, as well as more traditional musical-theater instruments. The ensemble helps maneuver it about the stage, bringing in and dispatching props and set-pieces while providing vocal backups and imaginative physical formations in Walter Bobbie's staging and Josh Rhodes' choreography, the latter of which can break into full-steam hoedowns.

Cusack made her Broadway debut as Alice, and you quickly see why it became a breakout role for this veteran of touring musicals. She is a luminescent presence, easily shuttling between time periods, and her voice can merrily twang through up-tempo numbers, find the heart in intimate songs, and soar into the stratosphere on the big ballads.

A.J. Shively, another veteran of the Broadway cast, is happily repeating his role as the soldier-turned-aspiring-writer Billy Cane. The young actor is a good-looking charmer as he takes us through the character's own backstory that begins in another small North Carolina town. Other roles fall into more predictable patterns, but are vividly played by Jeff Blumenkrantz and Kaitlyn Davidson as Alice's comic-relief assistants, Jeff Austin as a villainous mayor, Maddie Shea Baldwin as Billy's childhood sweetheart, and Stephen Lee Anderson as Alice's Bible-thumping father.

There are plot turns worthy of old-time melodramas that shouldn't be revealed here, and some miscalculations at how to put them across. And the cast is curiously white, with no indication that there may be some black townsfolk in places where they obviously were a significant presence. But if "Bright Star" is sometimes neglectful, and even a bit cockamamie, you have to think the creators' hearts were in the right place. Best of all is the chance to bask in the glow of Carmen Cusack, who can convince us that no matter what, as she insistently sings, the sun is gonna shine again.

 

"Bright Star" will run through Dec. 17 at the Curran Theatre. Tickets are $39-$175, available at sfcurran.com.

 






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