‘Bright Star’ opens on Broadway, #TBT to Old Globe review

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Bright Star opens tonight at the Cort after one month of previews, and the press is buzzing over Steve Martin and Edie Brickell new musical.  Here at 7HalfCents.com, we have a fondness for Bright Star, as if was the first musical we reviewed on the site.  Check out our take on the original Old Globe production from October 2014 here.

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San Diego Premieres Steve Martin’s New Musical

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In his program note, Old Globe Artistic Director Barry Edelstein calls Bright Star a “great yarn with a heart as big as a mountain and a soul as deep as the sea.”  A “yarn” proves to be an apt description for this show, because the characters in this completely new bluegrass musical weave their story in a lovely, homespun way.  The creators set about knitting that story using the Broadway formula, but—doing so without customary Broadway-style flash—the audience discovers they have invested in the story without knowing they have fallen for the usual tricks.  After an hour of this knitting, the feeling when the houselights come up for intermission is as if the audience discovered they were suddenly wearing sweaters they hadn’t been donning at the top of the show.

Watching this bit of handiwork on stage is a treat.  The work is the Old Globe’s fifth dramatic collaboration with funny man, actor, playwright, banjoist, songwriter Steve Martin over the last two decades, and the theatre has been involved with Bright Star for the past two years.  The piece underwent the workshop process in February and March in New York; now, in October, it receives a full and proper stage treatment.

As for the show itself, the story opens on a young veteran making his way home to North Carolina immediately following World War II.  A.J. Shively brings an exuberance to the character of the young soldier, Billy Cane.  At the outset, Billy appears to be the main protagonist; he sets out to become a writer upon his return to civilian life.  His storyline, however, is eclipsed quickly by that of Alice Murphy, his editor.  Throughout the show, the story jumps like a handy game of hopscotch between Miss Murphy in 1945 and her younger self in 1923.  We enjoy Billy’s story arc, but we actually invest in Miss Murphy’s.  Carmen Cusack shines bright as a…well, er—star—in the role of Alice Murphy.  Aside from the expected challenges of portraying the same character 22 years apart in back-to-back scenes—which she accomplishes seamlessly—her voice is particularly suited for delivering both the folksy joy as well as the aching melancholy that the bluegrass score demands at different times.

One such moment of aching melancholy is the second act number “I Had a Vision.”  Though the score overall is quite tuneful, this number—shared by Miss Cusack and Wayne Alan Wilcox who plays Alice Murphy’s teenage flame, Jimmy Ray Dobbs—is the most poignant song in the show.  For anyone in their mid-thirties to mid-forties whose present life is different than their twenty-year old self had planned, this song is especially heart-breaking.  By this point in Act II, that same audience who realized they were wearing sweaters look down to discover that somehow the cast has also sewn on buttons and has closed the garment around them.

The garment is plenty comfortable.  Steve Martin—as composer and book writer this time—teams with lyricist Edie Brickell to fashion a bluegrass score that is at times straight up Appalachian hoedown (“Whaddya Say, Jimmy Ray” and “Another Round”) and at other times more of a show tune sensibility (“A Man’s Gotta Do” and the aforementioned “I Had a Vision”).  The cast generally balances bluegrass and Broadway quite well, aided greatly by the orchestra that includes banjo (of course), guitar, mandolin, and fiddle.  While avid musical theatre ears might harken to shows like Smoke on the Mountain, the instrumentation doesn’t seem out of place for a casual theatre-goer who has a Pandora playlist that includes Mumford & Sons.  Efforts to resist toe-tapping are worthless.

Putting the orchestra in the frame of a house, director Walter Bobbie involves the musicians in a charming way without being too gimmicky.  As scenes shift, the actors wheel that shack around the stage like Dorothy’s house.  The audience never questions the band’s onstage presence; they are totally at home in the thick of the action.  On the subject of scenery and staging, Bobbie employs the kind of devices that leave the majority of the work to the imagination.  With this kind of Our Town-esque responsibility, the director charges the actors to transform chairs and crates into a train in one moment and a star-lit glen in another.  The sensibility is a bit more Peter and the Starcatcher than Our Town, but it is of the same lineage.  In Bright Star, the production value always bows in deference to the story, which is the right approach in this instance.

As stated before, the possibility that Mr. Martin and Ms. Brickell might tailor this piece further following the San Diego run is an exciting prospect.  The creators might consider rounding out Act II with a few additional numbers or judiciously-placed reprises.  For example, Miss Murphy’s employees, Daryl Ames and Lucy Grant—played hilariously by Jeff Hiller and Kate Loprest—could stand to have a number in addition to their part in the lackluster expositional number “My Wonderful Career.”  Dora—the slightly daffy sister played by Libby Winters—needs more material to connect the events from Act I to her raucous Act II romp, “Another Round.”  Lastly, because Act I ends in a kind of lean-forward-in-your-seat, eyes-wide-open manner, Act II opens with the reassuring “Sun’s Gonna Shine” to release the collective tension.  But the song speaks with so much hope that it practically begs for a reprise at the end of Act II.  Martin and Brickell use a reprise of “I Had a Vision” instead—which is effective and moving—but the moment could benefit from some musical quoting of “Sun’s Gonna Shine.”  No doubt, the creators feel they have a complete and streamlined story, and again, in this instance, snappy storytelling is probably the best choice.  But the audience—happily on board for the story—would probably permit a few detours.

The Old Globe should be commended for this collaboration with Ms. Brickell and Mr. Martin as well as with director Walter Bobbie, choreographer Josh Rhodes, music director Rob Berman, and the team of designers.  They have woven a story that feels good and that hopefully will parade around for awhile before it goes in the cedar chest.

Carmen Cusack as Alice Murphy and Wayne Alan Wilcox as Jimmy Ray Dobbs with the cast of the world premiere of Bright Star, a new American musical with music by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, lyrics by Brickell, book by Martin, based on an original story by Martin and Brickell, and directed by Tony Award winner Walter Bobbie, Sept. 14 - Nov. 2, 2014 at The Old Globe. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Carmen Cusack as Alice Murphy and Wayne Alan Wilcox as Jimmy Ray Dobbs with the cast of the world premiere of Bright Star, a new American musical with music by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, lyrics by Brickell, book by Martin, based on an original story by Martin and Brickell, and directed by Tony Award winner Walter Bobbie, Sept. 14 – Nov. 2, 2014 at The Old Globe. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Edited:  March 24, 2016

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Diversionary Theatre produces exceptional, ensemble-driven ‘A Civil War Christmas’

Some musicals just feel right at Christmas;  Meet Me in St. Louis, Annie, and even Rent give audiences a little boost of extra warm fuzzies when seen at Christmastime, because they all contain prominent Christmas scenes.  These shows are in a different subset than those that are expressly meant to be performed at Christmas.  Enter A Christmas Carol, A Christmas Story, and Elf to name a few.  Joining the ranks of the latter subgenre is the new work A Civil War Christmas, playing now through January 3 at Diversionary Theatre in San Diego.  With a score that is part traditional carols, part Civil War songs, and part spirituals, Pulitzer-prize winner Paula Vogel crafts an intricate script surrounding a myriad of historical and fictional characters on Christmas Eve, 1864.

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(L-R) Brian Bose, Durwood Murray, Skylar Sullivan, Taylor Henderson, and Annie Hinton portray an array of historical characters in A Civil War Christmas.  (Photo courtesy of Diversionary Theatre)

Classifying this work warrants some discussion.  As a production, Diversionary has created a concert reading of the piece.  Actors portrays at least four characters each, carry binders to various music stands, execute simple blocking, and remain onstage in an arc of chairs.  At key points, a small choir upstage joins in singing from behind a scrim.  The show works successfully in its current concert format, and watching the actors move so swiftly between characters was enjoyable.  But it somehow doesn’t seem fitting to call this piece a “jukebox musical,” even though that is essentially what it is.

As a concept, A Civil War Christmas bears resemblance to a work like All Is Calm.  Minneapolis-St. Paul and St. Louis audiences may be familiar with the cantata-turned-stage-work that tells the story of the Christmas truce of 1914 when both German and Allied troops laid down arms, rose from the trenches, and celebrated the holiday in fellowship.  While All Is Calm weaves together traditional carols from Germany, France, and England, A Civil War Christmas pulls from the American South as well.  In many instances, they play off traditional carols surprisingly well.  In a brilliant stroke of cleverness, Vogel employs the Maryland state song; did you know it goes to the tune of “O Christmas Tree”?  The score prominently uses Negro spirituals, dips into the Quaker tradition, and—in a particularly poignant moment—includes the kaddish, a Hebrew prayer of mourning.  The show contains no original music, but the arrangements are masterful.

Playwright Paula Vogel admits looking to A Christmas Carol and Nicholas Nickleby in constructing a tapestry of characters and storylines.  While the expected Civil War figures prominently feature in the action, the secondary historical characters prove more fascinating.  For example, Skylar Sullivan delivers a careful performance of a burdened Abraham Lincoln and Annie Hinton a portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln that is delightfully both frenetic and sad; however the story of Elizabeth Keckley, Mrs. Lincoln’s African-American socialite friend and confidante layers over the top and is played with dignity by Taylor Henderson.  Vogel sees to it that each storyline intercepts with at least one other.  A Civil War Christmas is like the ensemble film Crash with period music and at Christmas.

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Adam Cuppy portrays a wounded Jewish solider in A Civil War Christmas. (Photo courtesy of Diversionary Theatre)

Other standouts in the cast include Tankia Baptiste who most notably plays a poor Negro working her way to the North with her daughter and who eventually arrives at the White House on Christmas Eve.  Adam Cuppy is the chameleon of the show, memorably portraying with ease the likes of John Wilkes Booth, a dying Union solder, a Quaker abolitionist, and a horse.  (You read that correctly.)  Kim Strassburger directs the whole ensemble cleanly and clearly.

Though A Civil War Christmas premiered at Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theater in 2008 and made the regional rounds in following years, this is the San Diego premiere.  See it at Diversionary Theatre through January 3.

 

‘In Your Arms’: a Dance Feast in Thirteen Courses

Jess LeProtto and Samantha Sturm bridge styles in Carrie Fisher's vignette

Jess LeProtto and Samantha Sturm bridge styles in Carrie Fisher’s vignette “Lowdown Messy Shame.”
(Photo by Carol Rosegg)

The Old Globe bills their latest production on the Shiley Stage as a “dance-musical.”  This creation, however, could also be labeled a “collaboration-ultimo” or “vignette-a-palooza.”  Instead of a standard one, two, or three-person creative team, In Your Arms features ten (10!) vignette-writers woven together by the music of Stephen Flaherty and the choreography/direction of Christopher Gatelli.  Flaherty’s usual writing partner—Lynn Ahrens—adds lyrics on the few occasions that feature them.

Stephen Flaherty's score ties together thirteen vignettes in The Old Globe's new production of 'In Your Arms.'

Stephen Flaherty’s score ties together thirteen vignettes in The Old Globe’s new production of ‘In Your Arms.’

One of the highest compliments to pay to a dance show, however, is a compliment worthy of this show:  it really doesn’t need words.

Set against the stylized backdrop of the Casa di Giulietta—the historic Italian residence that supposedly inspired Shakespeare to write Romeo & Juliet—the piece explores aspects of love across time and circumstance.  The show traverses dance styles from flamenco to ballet to tap to African to ballroom.  The set is perfect in its ability to transform locales, cast light, and disappear completely.  Stunningly effective projections add to the spectacle.

George Chakiris and Donna McKechnie bring depth to Terrence McNally's

George Chakiris and Donna McKechnie bring depth to Terrence McNally’s “Sand Dancing.”
(Photo by Carol Rosegg)

The cast includes a dizzying array of Broadway talent, young and old.  Veterans include the stately Donna McKechnie whose vignette frames the entire production.  Thankfully, she sings the title song, and imbues it with grace and gravitas.  Audiences eager to see George Chakiris will have to be content with a cameo appearance, as he joins McKechnie in the latter frame.

The absolute best parts of this whole dance tapestry occur right in the middle.  The four vignettes starting with one written by Carrie Fisher (yes, that Carrie Fisher) make up the heart of the show, feature the most engaging moments of dance with story, and highlight the brightest talents in the cast.  Fisher’s vignette—titled “Lowdown Messy Shame”—is a surprisingly hilarious mélange of ballet and tap narrated by a snarky, Princess Leia’d Jen Harris.  Samantha Sturm is a sweet and spritely prima ballerina here.  Whereas this sequence is laugh-out-loud funny, the following one is heart-wrenching.  “A Wedding Dance” features Marija Juliette Abney and Adesola Osakalumi in the most desperate and evocative moments of the entire evening.  In “Artists and Models, 1929,” Ryan Steele stars as a young model in the decadent Village scene.  His body is beautiful, and he uses it to create some amazing lines.  “Life Long Love” is simply mesmerizing.  Henry Byalikov and Karine Plantadit manage to strike that stunning point of athletic and emotional dance with painful accuracy.

Ryan Steele and Jonathan Sharp share a scandalously beautiful dance in Douglas Carter Beane's

Ryan Steele and Jonathan Sharp share a scandalously beautiful dance in Douglas Carter Beane’s “Artists & Models, 1929.”
(Photo by Carol Rosegg)

In Your Arms is a curious creation full of both humor and heart.  A book musical it is not, but the themes and motifs within the piece are accessible and lovely.  It is a delightfully satisfying dance-song cycle. The production runs through October 25, 2015 at The Old Globe.

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