Saturday, January 20, 2018

Theatre Review -- Bright Star (Musical) -- 2018 tour

I first learned of Bright Star when I read through the Tony nominees back in 2016. All the hype was surrounding Hamilton at the time but when I listened to the music from both shows I found that I enjoyed them both but I was drawn more to Bright Star. The soundtrack was infectious and fun and the story appealed to me. As 2016 closed out, Hamilton became the sensation and Bright Star faded from view. I thought very little about it until the summer of 2016 when I was surprised to learn that a local Utah Theatre would be welcoming Bright Star as part of its National Tour. I was naturally excited and swooped up a pair of tickets as soon as they were available.

(NOTE: If you're in Utah when I post this, you've got a little less than a week to see the show at Pioneer Theatre. The tour will continue through the Spring and Summer ending (appropriately?) in North Carolina in June. For tour dates, click here.)

Bright Star is a musical about love, loss, family, traditions, pain, hope and the nature of humanity. It's set in North Carolina with two storylines, one set in the 1920s and the other in the 1940s. The music is in a fun bluegrass style featuring a small "orchestra" sawing away on violin, banjo, mandolin, guitar, bass, accordion, cello, piano and drums. The instruments (except for the drums) are featured onstage in a wooden cabin constructed with partial walls and on a moveable bass so the band can move around throughout the scenes and bring extra energy and emotion to moments in the play.

The show focuses on the primary female lead Alice and shows moments of her life in the 20s and 40s. We meet her parents and the male love interest Jimmy Ray (along with his father). In the 1940s we follow the other male lead Billy as he works to figure out his life now that he's back from the war.

I was curious how the show would handle the transition between the two time eras to ensure it wasn't jarring to the audience but still obvious enough to not be confusing. The play begins with a sort of prelude number from Alice ("If You Knew My Story") where she lets you know that her story is central to the play and it's going to be amazing. From there we're taken to the 1940s and introduced first to Billy and his family after the war and then to 1940s Alice when Billy goes to Asheville to submit some stories to the magazine that Alice works at. After their meeting is the transition back to the past. This transition was a fabulous use of stage direction, choreography and storytelling. Alice begins her song ("Way Back in the Day") firmly set in the 40s but reflecting on her life in the 20s. As she sings and moves she is literally transformed into her younger self through the aid of fully visible costume and set changes brilliantly integrated into the choreography. By the end of the song, the audience is completely comfortable with the transition and given the adequate cues to easily distinguish between the 20s and 40s without needing any additional heavy-handed transitions.

The choreography and direction of this play was absolutely stellar. Not only did they manage to seamlessly transport a character and set 20 years in the past but other songs are packed with such wonderful blocking and planning that I did a few double takes during numerous scenes and smiled broadly as I admired what they had just done.

For example, in the title track "Bright Star", Billy is packed up and hits the road for his first trip to Asheville not sure what to expect but excited for the future. He sings about his hopes and aspirations. This traveling song whisks Billy around the stage with members of the Ensemble using blankets, benches and other props along with lighting and set movements to move Billy from his small country town to the station to the highway into small cars and large busses and finally into a small hotel room in Asheville. The entire scene could easily have happened with Billy simply dancing around in a train car or excitedly moving down the road with his suitcase. But the transition from place to place and vehicle to vehicle along with the catchy bluegrass tunes turned this into a real traveling song that took the audience on a great journey and helped invest them in the show.

The next song featured the fun choreography of transporting Alice back in time as mentioned above. Right after we arrive in the 1920s we meet Jimmy Ray and have another fun piece of choreography and music. The song "Whoa Mama" is a fun interaction between Alice and Jimmy as they talk about their possible relationship and the troubles that could ensue. The song is energetic and catchy but the version on the soundtrack recording pales in comparison to the version directed and carried out by this cast. In addition to the wonderful bluegrass energy from the band, Jimmy Ray and members of the Ensemble are kicking their heels and slapping their hands in a clattering of body rhythm that brings a visceral energy to the song. The physicality of the music combined with the physicality of the dancing, jumping and skipping really showcases the passion and energy that will be found in their relationship.

The set was simple with a few sparse pieces of furniture and props but with much of the setting being filled in with lighting and sound. One of the favorite set pieces of my wife was a stretch of model train track that ran across the top of the set (just below the curtain) and across which a model train rolled during a couple of scenes when the characters moved from city to city. The train even blew steam from its smokestack. This was just a small example of the balance between simple and amazing.

If you can't tell, I was impressed by the choices made by the Director, Choreographer and Set Designer. I came to the play already impressed with the story and the music from the soundtrack but seeing the way the cast carried out the numbers took it to a new level for me.

Speaking of the soundtrack, one super special and fun bonus to this touring cast was that it included a number of the original members of the cast who have been involved with the show since its pre-Broadway moments. Carmen Cusack (playing Alice) has been involved with the show since the beginning and from what I read, Edie Brickell wrote/changed some of the songs based on the way she saw Carmen perform. A.J. Shively continued his role as Billy and did a phenomenal job. Jeff Blumenkrantz continued as Daryl, the hilarious assistant to 1940s Alice. Patrick Cummings and Maddie Shea Baldwin were part of the original cast as swings/understudies and they took up the roles of Jimmy Ray and Margo (Billy's love interest) respectively. The actors were amazing and it was evident that they brought passion not only to the parts they were playing but to the production as a whole. There was a sense of true excitement and investment in this show.

I won't reveal the plot to you though I know if you listen to the soundtrack you'll be exposed to the "spoilers" and emotionally shocking moments. What I can say is that the plot truly is emotionally gripping. The music and the performances really help draw you into the story and I can't imagine having to participate in some of those scenes 7 days a week. From a storytelling perspective, it delivers drama and suspense balanced with joy and hope. In some cases, the balances come with coincidences that may be deemed unlikely in reality but which we gladly accept in this play not only because we truly want them to happen but also because the way they unfold just felt right and acceptable in the way they are presented.

I know that from the 2016 Broadway lineup, Hamilton is still getting tons of hype and will be in the limelight for years to come. I hope that the tour of Bright Star helps expose this show to people who may have let it fall under their radar. Judging by what I heard from the audience around me, people genuinely enjoyed what they saw. I hope that word of mouth will spread and we'll see additional productions of this show open up and be available for more people to enjoy. I would certainly love to see it again.

5 out of 5 stars

(NOTE: While I thoroughly enjoyed the show, I feel I should provide two warnings. First, it does address the mature theme of teenage pregnancy. Second, it DOES contain very passionately painful scenes that may make you cry and/or very angry. I had tears running down my cheeks more than once).

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