By Jordan Wright (Photo/Joan Marcus)
Like a series of Kodak snapshots or tinted travel postcards, “Bright Star” gives us a carefully crafted version of the Old South, specifically Asheville, N.C., where the musical is set.
The inimitable Steve Martin (better known for his appearances on “Saturday Night Live,” and in movies “The Jerk,” “Parenthood” and “Father of the Bride”) and singer/songwriter Edie Brickell collaborated on the music, lyrics and original story. The duo has earned country music bona fides partnering on Grammy award-winning American Roots music.
The show opens with Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack), a successful editor returning to her roots in the North Carolina woods. There she reunites with her hellfire-and-damnation preacher father (Stephen Lee Anderson) and meek-as-a-lamb mother (Dee Hoty) still living in their rundown shack — affording us a glimpse of how much Alice has risen from her hardscrabble youth. Listen closely to the words of her first number, “If You Knew My Story.” It allows the merest of hints of what is to come.
Meanwhile, back from World War II, ambitious young writer Billy Cane (A. J. Shively) meets Margo Crawford (Hannah Elless). Margo, smitten by the handsome young man, works in the local bookstore and types up Billy’s handwritten manuscripts in her spare time. But at the moment, Billy has only one passion to pursue — getting published in the Asheville Southern Journal, a prestigious literary magazine boasting the likes of Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote among other notable Southern writers.
Leaving Margo behind, he sets off for Asheville, where he insinuates his way into the hallowed halls of the ASJ and lies his way into a meeting with Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack), a hard-nosed editor who eats writers for lunch.
The story toggles back and forth between pre- and post-World War II. Back in the 1920s, Alice had a love affair with the mayor’s son, Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Paul Alexander Nolan), and bore him a child out of wedlock. Buckling to Mayor Dobbs’ (Michael Mulheren) insistence, she gives the baby up for adoption to avoid a scandal that could ruin Jimmy Ray’s career prospects, and Alice’s father agrees to sign the baby over to him.
At this point the story takes a dark turn, as Alice and her mother fight tooth and nail to keep the baby in “Please Don’t Take Him.” And as Dobbs takes the baby away in a leather briefcase, an antique train traverses an overhead track.
Director Walter Bobbie has his work cut out for him — he must convince millennial audiences that this was a real issue for unmarried girls while drawing sufficient sympathy on which to hang the soap opera dialogue and saccharine lyrics. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Like milquetoast, it’s comforting, but not especially palatable.
Ditto for the music, which can best be described as bluegrass lite, neither country nor Broadway. Look for comedic relief from Alice’s gay assistant, Daryl (Jeff Blumenkrantz), who lightens the tale with lines like, “If you want to be a writer, you have to stay drunk and feel sorry for yourself.”
Choreographers Josh Rhodes and Lee Wilkins slip in a bit of jitterbug and two-step to the strains of an onstage band of violins, banjo, mandolin, guitars, piano, accordion, bass fiddle and cello.
If you like sorghum, hoedowns and cornbread back-dropped by the Blue Ridge Mountains, this show is for you. One can only wonder if it will translate when it goes to Broadway in late February.
Through January 10, 2016 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC. For tickets and information call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.