Bright Star at Lyric Arts
**NOTE: This review contains spoilers of the plot.
Last season, Lyric Arts produced a regional premiere of If/Then as the opening of their 18-19 season. The musical was special, different and unique to what Lyric Arts has done in the past and they’ve done it again with another regional premiere. Their 19-20 season opened with the premiere of Bright Star. This lovely musical charmed Broadway audiences and received decently positive reviews. It even managed to be nominated for five Tony awards however it was severely overshadowed by the behemoth that is Hamilton.
Bright Star is inspired by true events about a woman named Alice and her life as a young girl and grown adult. The story takes place in the 1920’s against the backdrop of the American South. Working as an editor, Alice meets a young aspiring writer who is also a soldier that has just returned home from World War II. As she works with and teaches him each day, she longs for the child she once lost as a young woman. As she begins a journey to revisit her past, she soon realizes that her life and her new mentee are more connected than it may seem.
Upon walking into the stage I noticed something out of place almost immediately, however most unfamiliar with Lyric Arts innovative staging wouldn’t seem to think so. The band was on the stage in plain sight. Normally, Lyric Arts has the band in a rehearsal room above the theatre and the music is piped in however this was a different and smart choice.
The music of Bright Star needs to be heard without any interference of technology, the way it was originally intended. The gorgeous bluegrass score and lyrics by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell come alive this wildly gifted cast led by music director Elise Santa. Whenever a musical is wrapped up in a new genre of music, sometimes that genre feels lost as it’s been Broadway-ified. However Bright Star does not fall victim to this trap. It’s through and through authentic to its original stylings. The music sounds like it came straight from the Appalachian mountains with all it’s off-beat and stringed glory. Never would I think in a million years that I’d say I enjoyed bluegrass music, but here I am. I loved it.
The joyful feel of the sweeping music is only emphasized by incredible cast that only can be brought together by Resident Director Scott Ford. Despite a slightly underwhelming book, Ford still takes this musical and gives it warmth and plenty of heart. This production also adds a layer of simplicity with a set design by Katie Phillips that includes a band stand and various brought on pieces. It fits the nature of the show and was well done. Everything is tied together with rich colors that Shannon Elliot provides in the lighting as well.
I was pleasantly surprised to see so many new faces in this production. Cam Pederson plays Billy Cane, the WWII soldier and budding writer that Alice takes under her wing, and makes his Twin Cities debut. Pederson gives an eager but never irritating characterization of Billy. He’s engaging to the audience and has a clear voice that is beautifully balanced with the bluegrass style.
Chris Paulson who plays Jimmy Ray Dobbs, Alice’s love interest during her younger days, is unbelievably charming. What I find so special about Paulson’s performance is his ability to bring that charm and charisma into his singing, not just the performance of a song, but his actual voice itself. It’s breathtaking, especially in numbers like Whoa, Mama.
There is nothing I love more than a dynamic duo during a musical that can help bring a little humor no matter what is happening in the scene and Nykeigh Larson and Carl Swanson as Lucy and Daryl. They work for Alice at the literary magazine and bring laughs through every scene. Swanson brings quick wit and sharp humor while Larson shines in her mostly solo number Another Round with her recognizable big belt and fabulous dancing.
Katie Rozanas leads this show as the title character, quite literally as she is the bright and shining star of this production as Alice Murphy. Rarely have I felt a role was more perfectly cast in a show. Murphy allows herself to fully transform and transport herself back into the American South. She flips between Alice’s younger and older self effortlessly as the show progresses, never forgetting where each character was during her life at that time.
Her pain and sorrow were almost too hard to watch as Murphy is forced to give up her young child. The stakes were high and the choices were there for her. It is disappointing that this is quite possibly the most emotionally disturbing and raw scene in the show and the rest in the scene did not emote as high of stakes.
What happens many times with shows being produced in the Twin Cities is not the production itself but the original source material. As someone who critiques theatre outside of a Broadway setting, when shows are normally first being introduced to the mass public, I see this a lot. Lyric Arts has produced a stunning musical despite the fact that the book - also by Martin and Brickell - has some issues.
The big reveal happens when we as an audience discover that Billy is actually Alice’s son, the one who was thrown off the train over 20 years ago by Jimmy’s father . By the end of the first act, it was plain as day to see that Billy and Alice were connected somehow, or else why would he be in the story? What was his connection or purpose to plot? These questions loomed until it was revealed with the suitcase and baby blue sweater that Alice originally gave him up in. It definitely could have been work shopped a bit more.
Bright Star is sure to be on many future theatre company's season lists as it becomes more and more popular. Despite having a short stint on Broadway, this alluring musical will live on in regional areas for decades to come. If you haven’t heard the music or seen this show, I encourage you to experience it first at Lyric Arts.
Bright Star runs at Lyric Arts now through Sept. 29.