With the musical talents of Steve Martin and Edie Brickell fueling Bright Star (now onstage at Florida Studio Theatre’s Gompertz Theatre), you’d expect some pleasant, upbeat bluegrass-country tunes, and you get them. But you also get some real-heart-tuggers in this tale inspired by a true story of love, loss and forgiveness.
The musical (a Florida premiere following the Broadway run a few seasons back) is set in North Carolina, both in the days right after World War II and some 20-plus years earlier. We first meet Alice Murphy (Meredith Jones) and the ensemble of characters as she begins to unspool her story. Now a literary editor in Asheville, she has her roots in a smaller town where as a teenager she falls in love with the son (Blake Price) of one of the town’s most successful businessmen (Travis Mitchell). He’s not thrilled by their relationship and will do just about anything—even things that seem unspeakable—to keep them apart.
How does this back story tie to the arrival in Asheville of homecoming soldier Billy Cane (Max Meyers), who has literary aspirations that bring him into contact with editor Alice? You’ll probably reach a conclusion about that long before the characters do, but that doesn’t really matter.
While the action of Bright Star moves along swiftly, aided by a band of four musicians and actors who occasionally shift seamlessly into playing instruments themselves, and by a production team adept at moving off and on the props needed to suggest, say, a bookstore or a cabin in the woods, the emotional involvement may take a while to build for some audience members. Jones is a charismatic presence as Alice, but it’s not until late in the first act, when she’s confronted by a situation beyond her control, that we truly feel for her.
Then, in songs including “I Can’t Wait” and “Please Don’t Take Him,” we get at the heart of Bright Star’s story—a heart beating again in Act II, when Alice and her true love meet after years of separation with “I Had a Vision.”
Along the way, there’s a sweet little romance between Billy and Margo (Ashley Rose), the bookstore owner who’s known him since childhood and always loved him, and some light-hearted moments courtesy Alice’s co-workers, Lucy (Rachel Mulcahy) and Daryl (Michael Grieve), especially on the drinking number “Another Round,” where Ellie Mooney’s choreography comes into play.
D.C. Anderson, Mimi Bessette and William Selby succeed in bringing characters’ small-town parents to life, and music director Paul Helm leads his musicians on the rousing, tender score by Brickell and Martin, using banjo, mandolin, guitar and upright bass as well as piano and fiddle to match the Appalachian setting to the sound.
In the end, Bright Star (directed with feeling by Kate Alexander) shines as it promises. The show continues through Jan. 3; for tickets call 366-9000 or go to floridastudiotheatre.org.