‘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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La Jolla opens spectacle-packed premiere with ‘Up Here’

Up Here—the latest project from Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez—opened at La Jolla Playhouse last night…

The cast of 'Up Here' bring to life anything in Dan's mind, and Dan's got a lot on his mind. (Photo-Matthew Murphy/ San Diego Union-Tribune)

The cast of ‘Up Here’ bring to life anything in Dan’s mind, and Dan’s got a lot on his mind. (Photo-Matthew Murphy/ San Diego Union-Tribune)

Now, before jumping into this review, we should acknowledge the elephant in the room.  And the gorilla.  And the giraffe.  And the ninja.  And the quintet of figures hiding in the corner.

As for the elephant, let us recognize the multitude of eyes that are, have been, and will be scrutinizing the development of Up Here.  As the first project for the husband and wife songwriting team since their immense success with Frozen, the creative duo face enormous pressure from both musical theatre nerds and casual “Let It Go” hummers everywhere.

As for the gorilla and the giraffe, they are Up Here’s choreographer and director*.  These two powerhouse talents— Joshua Bergasse and Alex Timbers—also come with their fair share of expectation.  Timbers last brought success to La Jolla Playhouse with Peter and the Starcatcher(s).  Bergasse’s choreography for Broadway’s On the Town recently earned a Tony nom.  (He’s already got an Emmy for his work on Smash.)

Regarding the ninja, in general, it’s worth mentioning there is one in this show; in particular, let us recognize that this show conjures characters as quickly as our protagonist—Dan—can imagine them.  That anything could appear out of thin air can be a luxury in storytelling, but it also poses a risk.  Dan’s “anything” includes but is not limited to boy scouts, lumberjacks, wizard cats, cacti Rockettes, and Pacific Islanders.

And as for that group in the corner, wait…who is that over there?  I can’t quite see them…OH!  It’s the cast of Disney Pixar’s new animated film, Inside Out!  Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, Anger!  Come on out here!  No need to hide!  It is only a coincidence that your movie came out mere months prior to Up Here’s opening and deals with the same conceit of personified emotions.  No hard feelings.  But since the film was first, the chances are likely that when describing Up Here, laymen will say, “You know, it’s like Inside Out:  The Musical!”

…Now that we’ve identified these imaginary forces in the room and the mammoth pressures they place on the success of the show, let’s deal with the imaginary forces onstage.  The catchphrase from La Jolla marketing has been “a musical comedy with a lot on its mind”:  a brilliant description.  This review can’t even start without a five-paragraph detour.  Put plainly, it’s a lot.  And that’s partly the point.  The human mind is colorful, noisy, and relentless, and so is Up Here.

A thirty-something IT guy named Dan (Matt Bittner) and a spunky t-shirt designer named Lindsay (Betsy Wolfe) wonder whether they can really ever know each other. (Photo-Mathew Murphy

A thirty-something IT guy named Dan (Matt Bittner) and a spunky t-shirt designer named Lindsay (Betsy Wolfe) wonder whether they can really ever know each other. (Photo-Mathew Murphy

When the runaway train of Dan’s mind chugs into a station for a moment of calm, the audience is able to digest and connect with this fragile, modern love story.  These moments of relative stillness in a maelstrom of thought are also the most enchanting bits of storytelling.  Dan and Lindsay’s “I Feel Like I’ve Always Known You” is warm and simple.  Lindsay’s titular-eschewing number “Up There” is a heartfelt plea for Dan to communicate with her.  The duet “Like a Stranger” that they share in their respective analyst’s office is hilarious and clever.  But the action rarely stays settled for too long as Dan’s inner demons propel him ever onwards—usually into a production number.  The show teeters constantly between tender and lollapalooza.

Matt Bittner portrays our hero with impish, introverted charm.  Betsy Wolfe endows Lindsay with pluck and spirit.  Both have pipes to spare.  One advantage of the aforementioned moments of stillness is being able to enjoy listening to these two sing without distraction.  The rest of the ensemble portrays dozens of characters.  Dozens.  The cast of internal characters more or less forms two camps:  Dark Forces and Light Forces.  The quartet of Dark Forces include Cool Guy (Andrew Call), Cool Girl (Gizel Jiminez), Humbug (Devere Rogers), and Critic (Jeff Hiller).  At odds with these forces are Mr. Can-Do (Devin Ratray) and Captain of the Guard (Kikau Alvaro).  In particular, Hiller and Alvaro elicit guffaws.  The strong ensemble delivers explosive vocals and dance.  Kudos also to Eric Petersen—in a nod to Kristen’s own brother who is undiagnosed but lies somewhere on the spectrum—who portrays Lindsay’s slightly touched brother, Tim.  Though Tim’s situation is secondary to Dan’s, this bit of characterization adds richness.  When the moral of the story comes around for Dan and Lindsay that we never really can know everything about people “up here,” we also think of Tim.

Two major concepts of the show prove to be the greatest potential obstacles to an audience’s understanding.  Firstly, the parallel story of ‘The Rock’ gives a humorous history of Manhattan’s geology while helping us feel pride, fear, and joy for an “inanimate” object.  (As a side note, The Rock’s etude is quite lovely.)  Dan’s story collides—rather literally—with The Rock’s at the climax of the show.  The second obstacle is Tim’s mantra “There is no such thing as the number one.”  Despite a musical number with the same name providing a lengthy exegesis on the matter, the audience’s attention bounces between singer, animation, and unfolding action—missing half the explanation.

For all its production value, Up Here is a simple story that shows immense heart.  Timbers and Bergasse manage those heartfelt moments the best, but all of the flash is also fun.  Scenic designer David Korins brings a set that moves easily between the interior mind and the exterior world, almost reminiscent The Drowsy Chaperone at timesDavid J. Weiner’s lighting design is—to quote the show itself—“kaleidoscopic.”  Costume designer Ann Closs-Farley deserves praise for simply the sheer quantity and variety of costumes required for this whimsical story.   Music Director Aron Accurso leads a first-rate orchestra.

No doubt, Up Here will continue to grow and seek a life on Broadway.  La Jolla Playhouse has proven to be a nurturing place for works at this stage of development, and Up Here is lucky to be in their capable hands.  Maybe that elephant could go in the show.

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Up Here runs at La Jolla Playhouse through September 6.

*Any likeness between the creative team and actual jungle creatures is purely coincidental. 

Cygnet introduces San Diego to ‘Dogfight’

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Dogfight is a Vietnam-era story about a trio of Marines on the eve of their deployment.  Sorta kinda like On the Town but with more, umm…malice, the three take part in an elaborate game whereby they find the ugliest girl they can and bring her to a party for judging.  Victory goes to the most unattractive girl, and the Marine who brought her wins the pot.  This plan goes topsy-turvy when our hero, Eddie Birdlace finds he is kinda sorta falling for the girl he brought, Rose Fenny, and begins to question the whole ritual.  After a jam-packed evening of events, the two emerge changed…sorta kinda.

Charles Evans, Jr., Ben Gibson, Eric Von Metzke, Scott Nickley, Alex Hoeffler, Patrick Osteen and Bryan Charles Feldman plan their big night on the eve of their deployment.  (Ken Jacques)

Charles Evans, Jr., Ben Gibson, Eric Von Metzke, Scott Nickley, Alex Hoeffler, Patrick Osteen and Bryan Charles Feldman plan their big night on the eve of their deployment. (Ken Jacques)

Dogfight is a bittersweet story, and this dichotomous description proves just as apt for the current production playing at Cygnet Theatre as it does for the content of the story itself.  Artistic Director Sean Murray directs a cast that is sometimes wonderful and sometimes understaged in a musical story that is sometimes wonderful and sometimes understated.  It’s both bitter and sweet, but rarely at the same time.

First of all, a dichotomy runs through the show’s very structure.  Act I takes the audience on a terrific ride of musical sequences.  It naturally paces itself, because so much of it is scored.  Act II, on the other hand, introduces a number of scenes that suddenly slows down the action.  The difference in pace between the two acts is palpable. It languishes mostly from too much sitting—restaurant, tattoo parlor, and bridge scenes, for example—as well as a self-indulgent tendency of many of the actors to deliver lines a little too profoundly, touch noses a little too broodingly, and court a little too tentatively.

Individual performances also fall into this “bittersweet” dichotomy.  Caitie Grady sings the role of Rose beautifully; she has the best musical material in the show.  “Nothing Short of Wonderful” and “Pretty Funny” are terrific.  Some of Rose’s one-liners are real zingers, and Grady fires them against the Marines with precision.  But there’s an inherent problem in casting this leading lady.  Rose needs to be believably unattractive enough to be considered a contender for the Dogfight, but the role would be unsuited for a character actor.  Or would it?  There’s an unfortunate question that can pop up in this situation, one that probably came up at the casting table and one that certainly came up over post-show drinks:  “Is Rose too pretty?”  Back-handed compliments aside, Grady gives a fine performance.

Our leading man poses another problem that is—again—partly the show’s fault.  Patrick Osteen brings everything that an audience could want in its hero, Eddie Birdlace.  Youthful exuberance:  check.  Wailin’ vocals:  check.  Smoldering good looks:  check.  Unfortunately, Eddie Birdlace is a jerk.  He’s a conflicted jerk, but a jerk.  Even though the audience watches him (sorta kinda) grapple with the morality of this terrible contest, by the end of Act I, Rose gives him a tongue-lashing we’re grateful to watch him receive.  In a strange way, things wrap up rather tidily at the end of Act I.  The only reason we care about Eddie enough to come back and see more is because Act II is printed in the program and because we’ve all seen a musical before and know this is not how musicals usually end.

Patrick Osteen and Caitie Grady find common ground on the Golden Gate Bridge.  (Ken Jacques)

Patrick Osteen and Caitie Grady find common ground on the Golden Gate Bridge. (Ken Jacques)

In the way of supporting roles, Sarah Errington shines as Marcy.  Errington gets the title song, and her belting rendition satisfies lovers of contemporary musical theatre.  Alex Hoeffler and Scott Nickley play fellow marines Boland—the hardened, street-wise one—and Bernstein—the naive, fresh-faced one—respectively.  They’re playing to archetypes here with varying success.  Hoeffler’s detached Boland plays more like a wooden soldier, while Nickley’s frantic Bernstein is more endearing.  Rounding out the cast is a variety of Cygnet veterans and newcomers.

Winner of the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical in 2013, Dogfight also received nominations for Drama Desk, Drama League, and Outer Critics Circle Awards.  Productions of Dogfight are going up all over the West Coast and the Midwest including a slew of universities.  This spring brought first productions to Sydney and Amsterdam.  Composer/lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul—like their show—are enjoying some popularity at the moment.  Their new show Dear Evan Hansen is running now at Arena Stage.

(Photo courtesy of PasekandPaul.com)

Collaborations of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul include ‘Edges,’ ‘James and the Giant Peach,’ and the brand spankin’ new ‘Dear Evan Hansen.’ (Photo courtesy of PasekandPaul.com)

Musical Director Terry O’Donnell conducts a fine chamber orchestra; both solo and ensemble vocals are quite nice throughout.  David Brannen choreographed the macho-Marine movement sequences.  Sean Fanning’s set is outstanding.

Cygnet’s production runs through August 23 at Old Town Theatre.  Feminists should probably avoid Dogfight; then again, feminists looking for some fresh meat would find a feast here.

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