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The resilient spirit of Stevie Martin and Edie Brickell's Broadway musical
Bright Star could easily be a melodrama, with cackling villains and histrionic heroines chewing every piece of scenery. After all, this new Broadway musical, written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, is loosely based on the shocking true story of the Iron Mountain Baby, who was thrown from a train in 1902 and rescued by the couple who became his foster parents. That's just a McKinley assassination away from a turn-of-the-century soap opera.
However, this show, which is now in previews at the Cort Theatre, refuses to go big and broad. Relocating the story to North Carolina in the 1940s-60s, Martin and Brickell focus instead on the resilience of their Appalachian characters. The feelings are intense – and the bluegrass score evokes grief, loss, and hope – but there's no time for wallowing. There are jobs to do and kids to raise.
"Very early on, we discussed that this was never going to be a whodunit," says director Walter Bobbie, who has been part of Bright Star since its earliest workshops. "We knew the journey of this show was to watch these characters and how they dealt with what perhaps we already knew. The journey was following the arc of these characters based on an event that had incredible consequences."
Consequences certainly befall Alice Murphy, a poor but brilliant teenager who loves Jimmy Ray Dobbs, the mayor's son. They stay together despite economic and social barriers, but when they have a child, the world around them spins out of control.
Crucially, though, things calm down again. When we first meet Alice, in fact, she's already a grown woman, fully established as the editor of a Southern literary magazine. We don't flashback to her childhood until several scenes later, and as the story moves back and forth in time, we learn how the headstrong girl became the wounded yet resourceful woman.
We learn how everyone else endured as well, tracking the evolution of an entire community in the aftermath of a world-shaking moment. "This event became a star in the life of survivors," Bobbie says. "I perceive the show as a lot of well-intentioned people making mistakes and ultimately having to forgive themselves."
Notice how Bobbie keeps attributing the story to a large group of characters, instead of a single protagonist. "We have an ensemble, but we don't have a chorus, if you know what I mean," he says. "Everyone has a specific personality. We really wanted this to be about a community, so by the end of the evening, you've met everybody on stage and everybody has participated in the narrative in some way."
The detailed storytelling guides how the actors craft their performances. "I experience Alice as a single, cohesive character," says Carmen Cusack, who makes her Broadway debut in the role. "The younger Alice is always in the older Alice, but the tragedy that she endured has suppressed her expression. At times, Alice knows more about what's going on than the audience – at other times she knows less. Once Alice finally uncovers the truth that has been hidden from her – the source of all her trauma – her knowledge intersects with the audience's, and in that moment young and adult Alice are reconciled on stage. As a performer, I find that moment incredibly cathartic every time."
Distinguishing between "the two Alices" also means giving her youthful songs a different flavor. "The really fun part was finding young Alice's singing voice," Cusack says. "I wanted her to have a sweet yet spunky twang sound that could still be reinterpreted [through] her older counterpart. So I conjured up the feeling I had as a young girl singing at big church gatherings. All that grit and cockiness and no training. Nice to know she's still in there!"
TDF Members: At press time, discount tickets were available for 'Bright Star.' Click here to browse our current offers.
Follow Mark Blankenship at @IAmBlankenship. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Photos – from last year's production at the Kennedy Center -- by Joan Marcus. Top photo: Carmen Cusack as Alice