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Bright star shines

by Jim Gladstone

Stage star Carmen Cusack.
Stage star Carmen Cusack.  

It was a long way to Broadway for Carmen Cusack. After studying voice at the University of North Texas, an improvised two-decade itinerary took Cusack across the pond, over the rainbow, and off to Bali Ha'i before she ultimately landed in New York - and landed a Tony nomination for her 2016 debut on the Great White Way, pretty much embodying the title of Steve Martin and Edie Brickell's musical "Bright Star."

Last in San Francisco for a Curran Theater reprise of her career-making role in that bluegrass-infused show, Cusack returns this Saturday night for a solo performance at "A Twist of Limelight," the nonprofit Bay Area Musicals' annual fundraising benefit.

Cusack's first post-college job was performing for transatlantic cruisers aboard the Queen Elizabeth 2, which led to her settling in England for several years, where she was featured in West End productions of "Les Miserables" and "The Secret Garden."

On her return to the U.S. in 2006, Cusack found herself tugging on Broadway's coattails as she won lead roles in the national tours of "Wicked," as Elphaba, and of "South Pacific," as Nellie Forbush. But after playing beloved fan-favorites on the road, Cusack had the rare opportunity to make her first appearance on Broadway in a role she'd originated.

From its first workshop at Vassar College in 2013 through its world premiere at San Diego's Old Globe and a pre-Broadway run in Washington, D.C., Cusack was an integral element of "Bright Star," sharing her New York debut with the show's unlikely composers.

"I'd been following Steve Martin's banjo-playing for years," said Cusack. "As a kid, I lived in the American South for the most part: Panama City, Florida; Alabama; Texas. I went to college for classical training, but growing up, I'd been surrounded by gospel, folk, bluegrass, all that swamp gothic music. And as soon as I read 'Bright Star,' I connected with it. It really does seem like you run away from the things you grew up with, then end up coming back to them."

The show's four-year development gave Cusack a strong sense of ownership, as the role of Alice Murphy, a small-town girl who has an infant son taken from her custody and is reunited with him much later in life, was gradually shaped around her own strengths and empathies toward the story (Cusack's own parents were in their mid-teens when she was born).

"Helping to facilitate the rewrites, being a part of the whole creative process was really fulfilling," Cusack recalled. "That's part of why I did some of the national tour. I'd been building that role for so long, I wasn't ready to let go of it yet."

Over the year since she left "Bright Star," Cusack has been involved in a number of projects, including writing folk and bluegrass-influenced music of her own. She'll include some originals, along with her distinctive takes on pop songs by the likes of George Michael and Brandi Carlile, and of course some show tunes in this weekend's performance.

"I'm definitely going to do something from 'Calamity Jane,'" she said. "Doris Day was the first woman entertainer who really got my attention as a kid. Wearing men's clothes, standing up on a barstool and singing: that looked like fun!"

That old tomboy instinct will serve Cusack well in one of her upcoming projects, an LGBT favorite. "I'm going to be playing 'Victor/Victoria'" at Los Angeles' Reprise 2.0 theater in September. Her queer appeal will also be in full force this July as Cusack dabbles in a little Elphaba-on-Elphaba action, playing the lover of fellow "Wicked" vet Eden Espinosa in the Williamstown Theater Festival's world premiere of "Lempicka," a musical that producers ultimately hope to bring to New York.

"I'm never really swayed by what happens to be popular with Broadway audiences," said Cusack, whose somewhat unconventional career path has treated her just fine. "I look for roles that I genuinely connect with personally. And that changes all the time. Ten years ago I probably would have told you I dreamed of playing Rose in 'Gypsy.' Now I think it would be great to do 'Sunset Boulevard.' There's never a fixed answer. I feel like a kid. I want to be a fireman this week!"

A Twist of Limelight stars Carmen Cusack, a benefit for Bay Area Musicals. Sat., May 19, 7:30 p.m. Alcazar Theater, 650 Geary St., SF. Tickets from $45. www.bamsf.org

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