Pat Launer, Center Stage on KSDS JAZZ88
October 3, 2014
In the South, pedigree is everything. In theater, not so much.
Of course, it’s great to have knockout names like Steve Martin and Edie Brickell attached as co-creators, paired with Tony Award-winner Walter Bobbie as director.
But the world premiere musical, “Bright Star,” a sort of Southern Gothic romance premiering at the Old Globe, needs more than that.
The sometimes melodramatic, multi-strand story concerns a purse-lipped, high-power editor of a literary magazine in Asheville, North Carolina — which was, in fact, a literary hotbed in the 1920s to ‘40s – and a fresh-faced, budding young writer just home from the Second World War.
Halfway into the first act, you can foresee Act 2’s Big Reveal, which isn’t that much of a shocker, though the leadup has moments of tension.
Part of the problem here is predictability — in Martin’s book, and especially in Brickell’s lyrics, which are mundane and awkwardly rhymed. Martin’s score features energetic bluegrass and heartfelt ballads, but there’s a sameness throughout.
The excellent onstage band is situated in an open-slatted wood cabin, which is pushed around endlessly (and often pointlessly) by a game cast of 18. The proceedings are pleasant, and the lead players are attractive, appealing and talented. Carmen Cusack is especially noteworthy as the editor, and early on, she makes a delightful onstage transition from her older to her younger self. There’s the usual big-bellied bad-guy, a crooked politician who sets the nefarious part of the plot in motion. And of course, thwarted love is in the air.
Bobbie’s direction is highly imaginative, particularly the prop-moving and scene changes in the sluggish first act. The lighting is lovely, ranging from sepia tones to starry skies. But the feel-good, neatly-tied happy ending is a tad treacly. There’s an aw-shucks, retro feel here, to be sure.
What is unique is Martin’s banjo/bluegrass/roots sensibility, which is not that common in musicals. The tunes may be toe-tapping, but without those Big Names attached, it’s not clear that the show would have legs.
“Bright Star” runs through November 2 in the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park.
©2014 PAT LAUNER