“At Long Last” is the climactic song from Bright Star, the Steve Martin / Edie Brickell bluegrass musical and at long last the Phoenix Theatre, presenting the show through Oct. 7, has found a show that fits comfortably on its new mainstage.
Okay, maybe it hasn’t been long. This is only the third show to be mounted at the new Phoenix. But the first two, the problematic Vonnegut-based God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and the drama Indecent, didn’t quite settle into the space comfortably. Chalk it up to a combination of difficult material and a challenging transition period, but while both were worth seeing, neither was the kind of event you’d want to take Phoenix newcomers to in hopes of converting them into frequent visitors.
Bright Star, on the other hand, is just that kind of show. It’s a tuneful, unchallenging tale with its heart on its sleeve, peopled with a first-rate cast and given a warm production.
The action jumps between the mid-1940 and the 1920s. In the latter period, aspiring writer Billy returns from the war to his North Carolina home penning tales he hopes will impress Southern literary magazine editor Alice. The flashbacks take us to a time when teen Alice fell for the Mayor’s son Jimmy Ray. It’s a wrong side/right side of the tracks romance that soon leads to plot-propelling problems.
The show mixes many Phoenix newcomers with well-cast returnees.
Molly Garner, so strong in Summit Performance’s Silent Sky earlier in the year, is in terrific voice as Alice and gives a sharp performance as the elder version of the character. I would have liked to see more immaturity in the flashback sequence as her relationship with Jimmy Ray blossoms but she hits powerful moments of truth, particularly in the harrowing scenes at the end of the first act. (Contrary to the show’s poster art, it’s really her story and not Billy’s that drives the story.)
Ian Laudano’s Billy and Patrick Clements’ Jimmy Ray find nuance in characters we’ve seen before. As the mayor, Charles Goad makes the most of the most stereotypical character in the show. If he had a mustache, you’d half expect Martin and Brickell to have him twirl it. Ashley Dillard and John Vessels make delightful use of their every moments of stage time as staffers at the lit magazine—especially in the lively “Another Round” number, which is extraneous but very welcome in the middle of the second act. And as Alice’s father, Paul Tavianini anchors a lovely—and relatively music-free—scene in the second act where a lie offers a road to peace.
What keeps Bright Star from rising above “good”—and perhaps one of the reasons it had a short Broadway life and only a limited national tour—is its insistence on underlining ever emotion. It wants to tell tell tell what it has already shown and that too often lets the audience get ahead of the show. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the show’s final scenes, in which an emotional payoff is drained by an unnecessary flashback that pulls attention from the main characters and a big solo number that repeats emotions already captured by the book scene and performance.
Fans of the edgier work of the Phoenix may find the softness of the show surprising. It exists in a world where evil is obvious and the lyrics packed with bromides (“You never know what life will bring/Only what you bring to life,” “Lonely moments nearly drove my will to live/Something always told me to hold on for this”). Its message seems to come down to “Wait around and life will sort itself out.”
Not exactly progressive or proactive, but perhaps a helpful balm, at least temporarily, for these troubling times.
And, of course, it can’t hurt when it comes packaged in a crowd-pleasing hit: The first weekend of shows at the Phoenix were sold out.