Review: “Bright Star”

Missy Wise and Josiah Robinson in “Bright Star.” (Photo by Cody Jolly)

RECOMMENDED

Where: BoHo Theatre at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
When: through May 5
Tickets: $35
Phone: 773-975-8150

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

When “Bright Star” premiered on Broadway in 2016, most of the critics viewed the folksy musical by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell as an anomaly for the Great White Way and gave it mixed reviews. But BoHo Theatre’s inaugural production at its new home in the Greenhouse Theatre Center is well-suited to both the Upstairs Mainstage and the spirit of Off-Loop theater.

Inspired by a real incident of a baby thrown from a train in 1902, Martin (music, book, story) and Brickell (music, lyrics, story) have contrived an unabashedly sentimental Southern Gothic tale fleshed out with a suite of bluegrass-and-blues-inflected songs that would be at home at the Old Town School of Folk Music. The complicated plot, worthy of an old black-and-white film, jumps back and forth between two time periods—the early 1920s and mid-1940s—and centers on two characters whose unlikely connection is telegraphed long before it’s revealed.

At first, we’re not quite sure who the show is going to be about. The big opening ensemble number, “If You Knew My Story,” features a woman—Alice Murphy (Missy Wise), but we don’t know her identity as she sings—who assures us she has quite a yarn to spin. In the scene right after that we see Billy    Cane (Jeff Pierpoint) returning from World War II to his small-town North Carolina home.

Billy’s aspiration is to be a writer now that the darkness of war has lifted, and after the rousing title number, he sets off for Asheville armed with his short stories, leaving behind his friend Margo (Kiersten Frumkin), who works at the bookstore and is secretly in love with him. He immediately heads to the Asheville Southern Journal, a prestigious literary magazine that has published Carson McCullers and Eudora Welty, among others. After miraculously getting past gatekeepers Darryl (Dwayne Everett) and Lucy (Rachel Whyte), he meets the editor. That, of course, would be Alice Murphy, a tough sophisticated woman in her 40s.

Flash back to 1923, and Alice is a smart, feisty teenager with big dreams and a Shakespeare-style sparring romantic relationship with Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Joseph Robinson), the mayor’s son. His cigar-chomping father, Josiah Dobbs (Scott Danielson), has different plans for the boy than marrying a girl with no pedigree. When she gets pregnant, he shows the evil ends to which he will go, and though Jimmy Ray doesn’t know the extent of his father’s actions, he’s too embarrassed to see his true love again.

As the action hops back and forth, we see young Alice undergo the ordeal that culminates with her leaving the backwater town of Zebulon for Asheville and college, and the older Alice encouraging Billy by buying one of his stories and giving him editing tips. When Billy invites her back to see where he grew up, she also sets about tracking down her lost child in nearby Zebulon.

Without giving too much away, Alice finds more than she could have hoped for, and the happy finale involves a whole lot of forgiveness and not one, but two, weddings. The best thing about the show is the songs, among them the lovely duet “I Had a Vision” for Alice and Jimmy Ray and the uplifting “Sun’s Gonna Shine” for the entire company.

Happily, the highlight of BoHo’s production is the singing. The principals all have first-rate voices, and the choral work is impressive, too. So is the seven-person band led by music director Julie B. Nichols and supplemented by some of the actors, who play guitar, banjo, and such and move around the stage during several numbers.

Although the leads turn in solid performances—and Pierpoint is especially adept at executing Ericka Mac’s choreography—most of the supporting actors are so broad, they’re cartoonish, and Mac struggles as a director. The biggest problem is the blocking, which tends to be clunky.

Lauren M. Nichols’ homespun set—think lots of wood slats—doesn’t always work as smoothly as it should, but with G. “Max” Maxin IV’s lighting and projection design, it’s serviceable enough. So are Robert S. Kuhn’s costumes, as long as you don’t try too hard to distinguish between the 1920s and ’40s—and some indeterminate time of frilly button-front frocks.

About fifteen minutes into “Bright Star,” I didn’t have very high hopes that it would rise above the level of a high school—or maybe college—production, but I confess the music won me over. Credit or blame a taste for bluegrass and a sentimental streak.