SR review: “Bright Star” at BoHo Theatre
Steve Martin and Edie Brickell's musical keeps its stakes low but its charms high
The Steve Martin–Edie Brickell musical, with a bluegrass-tinged score and Southern literary allusions, is modestly winsome in its Chicago premiere
Theater review by Kris Vire
Missy Wise and Josiah Robinson in Bright Star. Photograph by Katie Stanley
Three years almost to the day from its Broadway opening, Chicago gets its first look at Bright Star, the bluegrass-tinged, Southern-fried musical by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell. The story is sweet but convoluted; the songs are packed with lovely melodies and frequently inane lyrics. But BoHo Theatre’s production, under the direction of Ericka Mac, contains enough impressive performances and infectious heart to help you get past the hokier elements.
It’s the first foray into musical theater for folk-pop singer-songwriter Brickell and for erstwhile wild-and-crazy-guy and accomplished banjo player Martin—though he had written plays, including Picasso at the Lapin Agile, which had its first production at Steppenwolf. The pair recorded a 2013 album together, Love Has Come for You, which in turn inspired the stage collaboration.
Bright Star follows two initially disparate storylines. In 1945, Billy Cane (Jeff Pierpoint) returns home to Hayes Creek, North Carolina after serving in World War II, determined to make his name as a writer of short stories. Billy sets off for Asheville—you know, The Big City—to submit his stories in person to Alice Murphy (Missy Wise), the influential, no-nonsense editor of the Asheville Southern Journal. We then flash back to 1923 in another tiny Carolina hamlet, Zebulon, for glimpses of young Alice and her first love, Jimmy Ray (Josiah Robinson).
Jeff Pierpoint and Kiersten Frumkin in Bright Star. Photograph: Cody Jolly Photography
For the first hour or so of the show’s two-and-a-half-hour running time, it’s not clear why we’re pinging back and forth between these two time periods. But it becomes crystal clear well before the end of Act I—and, possibly, before Martin and Brickell intend us to catch on, if they think the big reveal midway through the second act is actually a surprise to anyone but the characters onstage.
Suffice it to say—with the mildest of spoiler alerts here—that once we see young Alice and Jimmy Ray have a child out of wedlock, and their disapproving parents force Alice to give up the baby boy, well, Bright Star’s narrative path couldn’t be more brightly illuminated.
Once you see the story’s outcome—which, again, you’re likely to figure out before intermission—it might seem a little soap-opera silly. But it’s also, if we’re being honest with ourselves, downright Shakespearean, even down to the happy ending’s double proposals of marriage. There’s nothing more outlandish here than you’ll find in, say, The Winter’s Tale.
But that predictably happy ending compounds the feeling of low stakes throughout. That goes for the music, too; though the melodies and harmonies are frequently gorgeous, as sung and played under the capable music direction of Julie B. Nichols, they’re also low-key. Where the musical-theater rule of thumb is that characters sing what they can’t get across in mere speech, the mood here sticks mostly to humble ballads. It’s as if expressing bigger emotions would be too immodest—a violation of Southern gentility.
The ensemble of Bright Star. Photograph: Katie Stanley
And for a songwriter who broke through by noting that “philosophy is the talk on a cereal box / religion is the smile on a dog,” Brickell’s lyrics here are often numbingly generic. “Always Will,” the Act II number in which Billy and childhood sweetheart Margo (Kiersten Frumkin) finally declare their grownup love, repeats the refrain “always have, always will / always, always, always will” an astonishing six times.
Yet there’s something to be said for genteel charm. Martin and Brickell have their characters invoke a number of Southern writers from the first half of the 20th century—Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams, Asheville’s own Thomas Wolfe—as if hoping to incur some of their appeal by affiliation. And to a degree, it works.
The ensemble of Bright Star. Photograph: Katie Stanley
Alice is an alluring, potent leading woman, and Missy Wise feels like a real discovery in the role, pivoting convincingly between spirited young woman and hardened cynic; her honeyed voice sits comfortably in the seductive twang of country. Brickell and Martin’s score may not call for vocal pyrotechnics, but Wise’s instrument soaks into all the nooks and crannies the genre asks it to.
Pierpoint makes for an appealing male ingenue—he’s one of those young actors who seems born for revivals of mid-century musicals, with the attitude and physicality of a Gene Kelly type. And given a non-Equity cast and budget, director and choreographer Mac and her design team make BoHo’s production feel larger than its footprint. Considering the general state of affairs outside the theater, a collection of enjoyable harmonies and a predictably happy ending are nothing to sneeze at.
Boho Theatre at Greenhouse Theater Center (2257 N Lincoln Ave). Music, book and story by Steve Martin. Music, lyrics and story by Edie Brickell. Directed and choreographed by Ericka Mac. Music direction by Julie B. Nichols.
Cast: Missy Wise (Alice Murphy), Jeff Pierpoint (Billy Cane), Josiah Robinson (Jimmy Ray Dobbs), Kiersten Frumkin (Margo Crawford), Scott Danielson (Mayor Josiah Dobbs), John B. Boss (Daddy Murphy), Jenny Rudnick (Mama Murphy), Rachel Whyte (Lucy Grant), Dwayne Everett (Darryl Ames), Peter Robel (Daddy Cane), Mike Weaver (Dr. Norquist), Max Kramer (Stanford), Brittany Sue Hines (Edna), Kelan Smith (Max), Jennifer Ledesma (Florence).
Band: Julie B. Nichols (piano/guitar), Andrea Swanson (piano/guitar), Randy Mollner (mandolin, viola, violin, guitar), Lev Caruso (banjo, guitar, mandolin), Hillary Bayley (violin, viola), Rafe Bradford (bass), Lior Shragg (percussion).
Designers: Lauren M. Nichols (scenic), G. “Max” Maxin IV (lighting/projections), Robert S. Kuhn (costumes), Joseph Palermo (sound), Lacie Hexom (props).
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes; one intermission. Through May 5. Tickets ($35) at bohotheatre.com.
Thanks for being an early Storefront Rebellion paid subscriber!
If someone forwarded you this email, and you’d like to support independent, ad-free coverage of Chicago theater, you can sign up as a subscriber right now for 20% off the regular price.
Send your feedback and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.