One of the most charming, heartfelt recent Broadway musicals you have never heard of, Bright Star is given a lovingly crafted production by Pursued by Bear, the intimate stage of Chapel off Chapel fairly bursting with prodigious talent.
The closing date for Tony Award eligibility creates an annual bottleneck of Broadway openings in April. One of eight new musicals and three revivals on show in April 2016 (including a certain little hit entitled Hamilton), gentle bluegrass musical Bright Star was lost in the shuffle, playing four months before embarking on a partial US tour. Full credit to Pursued by Bear for uncovering this gem and bringing it to musical-loving Melbourne.
The welcome boutique production is on a generous scale for an independent company, with a cast of 18, two of whom double as musicians. In line with the recent Broadway trend seen in shows such as Come from Away and Waitress, the band is positioned on stage, enhancing the visual texture and stage energy. Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s music has an infectious, instantly accessible quality, capturing the distinctly American sound heard once upon a time in Big River. Musical director Nathan Firmin brings out the full character of the instrumental music, also infusing the vocals with a frisky bluegrass twang.
With the inspiration of a true event, Martin and Brickell have fashioned an original, affecting story, albeit one that would be at home in a daytime soap opera. The difference is the period setting and the quality of the writing. Martin’s quirky sense of comedy is heard in his book, with Brickell providing the stirring lyrics for the songs, which successfully spring forth organically from the book scenes.
Successful magazine editor Alice Murphy is sure the audience would look at her differently “If You Knew My Story.” We first meet handsome young World War II serviceman Billy Cane returning from the front to discover his mother has passed away. Billy leaves his sweetheart Margo in town, travelling to the city to submit his short stories for publication. Alice sees something special in the aspiring writer, and the story shifts from the 1940s to the 1920s as she recalls her youth.
Young Alice loves Jimmy Ray, but their troth is thwarted by his father Mayor Dobbs, an insidious snake of a man who will not waver in his vision for his son’s life. Mayor Dobbs commits a particularly malevolent deed at the end of act one, and the ripples of tragedy colour most of act two until a hard-earned happy ending eventually ensues.
Working with an exceptionally talented cast, each very well suited to their roles, director Mark Taylor breathes natural life into the characters, ensuring that the aching heart of the story rings true. The show could potentially be derailed by caricature and outlandish delivery of plot twists, but here it is heartfelt and deeply moving, significantly aided by the intimate setting. Taylor’s direction is also particularly successful in nailing the quirky comedic style required to optimise Martin’s witty writing; indeed, the cast score many a laugh out loud moment with their well-honed timing and delivery.
Closely interwoven with Taylor’s direction is the sharp, spry choreography of Freya List, who has dance erupting out of scenes with a life force seemingly of its own. List’s choreography is distinctly characterised by period style and appears as much fun to perform as it is to watch. Integrating dance into scene changes completed by ensemble members means that there is not a wasted moment in the show.
Sarah Tulloch’s production design makes attractive use of the space, melding a range of elements for an atmospheric, easily adaptable setting. With various scenes imaginatively created by combinations of wooden crates, the action flows seamlessly back and forth between the 1920s and 1940s. The lighting design of Mungo Tumble complements the ambience perfectly. Hanging globes that represent stars are a lovely touch.
Supporting the presentation of two eras is the costume design of Jodi Hope, who uses a palette of soft sun-bleached shades to reflect the heat of North Carolina. Alice’s onstage transition from middle-aged woman to teenaged girl is a very effective sequence. Period hairstyles complement the costume stylings for a visually appealing, authentic overall result.
Trouble with sound design resulted with a plethora of missed cues on opening night. This improved in the second act and is sure to be remedied quickly as the all too brief season continues.
Making her Broadway debut, Carmen Cusack earnt a legion of admirers for her work as Alice, a role she played for the full life of Bright Star, from out of town tryouts to US tour. Cusack fitted the mature age Alice, becoming “younger” for the 1920s scenes. In contrast here, leading lady Kala Gare fits the age of young Alice, adopting a change of hair, costumes and body language to play the “older” Alice. There was a small chance that this change could have undermined the show’s intentions, but it works brilliantly, succeeding in no small part due to Gare’s magnetic presence and her exceptional talent as an actress.
Gare’s unflinching commitment to the role raises the stakes of the story and ensures that each twist lands with highly affecting weight. This is a performance to be cherished and is a key attraction for Melbourne musical lovers to see Bright Star this week.
Looking every inch the upright young soldier, Callum O’Malley proves an appealing leading man, drawing the audience to his presence and singing with a ready natural tone. Sarah Krndija elevates the role of Margo beyond simple love interest for Billy, scoring extra credit for terrific comic ability.
Matthew Prime embodies intelligent hunk Jimmy Ray, subtly changing his body language and expression to play the older incarnation of the man. Mike Gardiner submits to audience hatred of Mayor Dobbs, portraying the vile villain as a man who simply believes he is right.
Ellie Nunan and Lachlan Hewson bring delicious local colour to Alice’s magazine headquarters. Nunan gives a sparkle to vivacious, man-hungry clerk Lucy while Hewson nicely downplays the camp in tortured writer Daryl. Act two charm song “Another Round” is a winner in the hands of these two, and their work in the happy ending is a hoot.
Violinist Ruby Clark and banjo player Anthony Craig add extra comic zing to the burgeoning bookstore romance of Max and Edna.
Taking a chance on Bright Star will be well rewarded.
Bright Star plays at Chapel off Chapel, Melbourne until 3 November 2019.
Photos: Ben Fon