Bright Star has so much going against it: banjos, fiddling, a melodramatic plot. And – perhaps most inauspicious of all – a central character who yearns to be a writer. Welcome to the omphalos: preciosity and navel-gazing dead ahead.
Except not. In their surprisingly effective joint venture, Steve Martin and Edie Brickell (they claim shared credit for the music and story, he the book, she the lyrics) manage to summon the intensity and likely heartbreak of young romance. Aiding them immensely is Broadway newcomer Carmen Cusack, who – singing with extraordinary artfulness and heart all the way – convincingly makes a two-decade leap (1923-46) from back-country North Carolina hoyden to citified bluestocking.
Alice Murphy’s salad days are spent in the bosom of a devout family laboring under the delusion that a “firmer hand” might quell her impish curiosity. She’s irrepressible, especially when it comes to her attraction to golden boy Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Paul Exander Nolan), unwilling heir to the power and privilege enjoyed by his father, the mayor (quintessential fatcat Michael Mulheren). Alice and Jimmy Ray do what adolescents do, only with unforeseeably horrifying consequences. It’s a safe bet that, in the history of musical theater, few act-one curtains have fallen on so heart-lurching a note.
But not to worry: There’s a parallel story – about that aspiring writer (A.J. Shively) and his bookstore-clerk girlfriend (Hannah Ellis) – that will link up with Plot A as neatly as spines on a shelf. The structure is too tidy by half, and yet it’s hard to object, or to stave off a lump in one’s throat, so committed are the performers and primordial the emotions artfully played upon here.