Steve Martin and Edie Brickell collaborated on two wonderful banjo-and-whimsy fueled albums (the first, Love Has Come For You, won a Grammy in 2013 for best American roots song). Fans of Martin’s wide-ranging gifts as comedian, author, movie star, art collector, playwright (count me in) have seen his avocation as expert picker blossom with the singer-songwriter Brickell. Their work is suffused with an irresistible chemistry of longing and optimism and even a kind of countrified mysticism that divines hope in sorrowful corners of the soul.
So my advice is to spend an evening with Love Has Come For You and the new album, So Familiar, and skip Bright Star, the unfortunate musical they have brought to the Cort Theatre by way of a tryout last year at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre. If you can recall the take-no-prisoners lunacy of Martin’s play Picasso at the Lapin Agile, you may be doubly disappointed by this earnest but soggy mess.
Drawn from one song on the duo’s first album and incorporating several others (there’s a warning in that), Bright Star tells the intertwining stories of two pairs of lovers in a North Carolina backwater. Alice Murphy (the incandescent Carmen Cusack) and Jimmy Ray Hobbs (the determined Paul Alexander Nolan) fall in love too young and produce a child torn away from them by his ruthless father (blustery Michael Mulheren, memorable as the newspaper editor in Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark, in the villain’s role once again). The baby boy is to be dispatched where no shame can be brought upon the families.
A couple of decades later, Billy Cane (A.J. Shively) has returned home after serving in World War II, eager to launch his career as a writer while his girl, Margo Crawford (Hannah Elless, radiant) waits, and waits, behind the local bookstore counter. Billy goes off to make his fortune, or at least get published by the prestigious southern literary review whose perfectionist editor (Alice, now grown into schoolmarmish spinsterhood) tells F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway how to fix their prose. She takes a keen interest in the young, unseasoned writer. If you can’t figure out where this all leads, you’re thicker than I –and I’m pretty thick in this territory of Dickensian plot twists, turns and coincidences.
Staged by Walter Bobbie and choreographer Josh Rhodes, Bright Star reeks of condescension, from the twangy accents to the charm layered on like dollar perfume and the thigh-slapping slap-happy dances. Worse — and notwithstanding Bobbie’s talents as a musical-theater veteran — the show lacks Broadway professionalism. It unfolds more like a jukebox musical in which dialog and plot strain comically to accommodate songs that don’t fit or advance the story and almost never reveal the interior lives of these characters, no matter how appealing. As I said, however, the songs are, in and of themselves, striking, and Rob Berman’s musical direction and vocal arrangements are exquisite.
Eugene Lee’s rustic set consists mainly of a the timber skeleton of a cabin housing several of the musicians, and which the cast constantly shift back to front, stage left to right, for no apparent reason. Even the redoubtable costume designer Jane Greenwood falters here, confining the dancers — especially the fine Emily Padgett — in unflattering clothes that constrain them, rather than let them fly. But nothing really takes flight in Bright Star. It’s as earthbound as the folks it wants to celebrate.