- Greggory Moore
By Greggory Moore, Curtain Call Columnist
One of the hardest things in the world, they say, is to write a good hook. See enough musicals and you come to feel just how true that may be. For every Sweeney Todd or Grease, there are a hundred without even a single song that sticks.
That’s Bright Star’s big problem. Try as they might to have us humming one of their tunes as we leave the theater, Edie Brickell and Steve Martin’s redundant refrains only get less memorable each time you hear them.
But they do a bit better with the story. It’s 1945, and Billy (Taubert Nadalini) returns from serving overseas to smalltown North Carolina, where he learns of his mama’s death and is reunited with childhood pal Margo (Paige Herschell). She’s all grown up, but Billy has eyes only for being a writer, so he’s off to Ashville to try to get one of his stories published. There he meets Alice (Anna Mintzer), the editor of a big-time literary journal. She sees something in Billy and encourages him to develop his talent by writing about the people and places he knows, because there are meaningful stories hidden there.
Alice knows whereof she speaks. Once upon a time she too was smalltown folk, and through a series of flashbacks we witness her adolescent romance with Jimmy Ray (Devin Archer), whose bigwig father (Sean Smith) will go to nefarious lengths not to let Alice’s pregnancy derail Jimmy Ray’s lucrative future.
Although we see the plot twist coming from light years away, we don’t mind watching its journey to us. While Josh Rhodes’s choreography isn’t dazzling, it successfully swings us from the ‘40s to the ‘20s and back again, and Mintzer does a nice job oscillating between the younger and older Alice. As always, Musical Theatre West’s production value is high, including sets that flow to and fro as easily as the plot. The star of the mise en scène may be Jean-Yves Tessier lighting design, particular during nighttime scenes.
But this is a musical, so the music’s failure is the show’s failure. There are a few bright spots. “She’s Gone,” for example, opens with a beautifully dark theme for strings, and a couple of songs employ simple yet clever rhythmic interplay between stomps, claps, and pizzicato (Brickell and Martin’s best instrumental ideas always feature strings). But not only don’t these moments last, but we have entire songs that are downright grating (“Firmer Hand/Do Right,” “Heartbreaker”).
Brickell’s lyrics are part of the overall failure. Among her worst offences are trying to rhyme “go” with “porch” and abusing the old “wine-fine/liquor-quicker” saw nearly a dozen times within a single song. Other refrains range from complete reliance on clichés (“The Sun’s Gonna Shine”) or such heavy simplistic repetition that you wonder whether she never got around to replacing placeholder lyrics with something more thoughtful. “I always have, always will / Always always always,” Billy and Margo sing for the fifth time, before singing it again: “I always have, always will / Always always always.”
While the best singing in the world wouldn’t make much of a difference, on the whole the cast comes up a little short vocally. Archer is excellent and Mintzer is generally fine, but otherwise the soloist range from decent to overextended (even though the smaller singing roles aren’t particularly demanding). There is real magic, however, when Archer and Mintzer sing together. Their harmonies during Act 1’s “What Could Be Better” is the stuff of goosebumps, so we’re grateful when Act 2’s “I Had a Vision” gives them the chance to do this again. These are Brickell and Martin’s best vocal lines, and Archer and Mintzer are their perfect vehicles.
The show ends strongly, offsetting the predictability of its resolution by packing the show’s funniest moments into the last 15 minutes. But without songs that soar above the story, despite Musical Theatre West’s best efforts, Bright Star is a quickly dimming memory, nearly forgotten by the time you reach the parking lot.
Bright Star at Musical Theatre West
Times: Fri 8 p.m., Sat 2 p.m. + 8 p.m., Sun 1 p.m.
The show runs through Nov. 4
Details: (562) 856-1999 ext. 4, musical.org
Venue: Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts, 6200 E. Atherton St., Long Beach