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'Bright Star' - A Tuneful, Moving Journey

Carmen Cusack and Paul Alexander Nolan in Bright Star
(©Nick Stokes)

The hands of time sweep backward in Bright Star, the musical which has just opened at Broadway's Cort Theatre. It's not just that the show takes place in the early 1920s and mid-1940s that gives theatergoers this sense of traveling to the past. The show itself, with a book and score by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, takes its cue from films that the characters themselves might have gone to on a Saturday night at a local movie house.

At the center of the piece is Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack), a woman with a keen intellect, whom audiences encounter at two periods in her life. As a teenager, Alice pursues and wins the love of Jimmy Ray (Paul Alexander Nolan), the son of the mayor of their small North Carolina town. In the eyes of Jimmy Ray's father, though, Alice's humble roots mean that she cannot, under any circumstances, be considered a suitable mate for his son, and so the elder man finds ways to force the two apart.

Cusack also plays Alice in her late 30s when she has become the lead editor of an influential Southern literary journal, and in these sections of Bright Star audiences witness how she, much to the surprise of colleagues, nurtures a budding young writer, Billy (A.J. Shively). The book, peppered with a terrific sense of Southern humor and genuine warmth, crisscrosses back and forth between periods and shrewdly interweaves the tales from both periods of Alice's life.

It's a sweet, romantic, sepia-toned look back to the first half of the 20th century that's beautifully supported by the score Martin and Brickell have written. Their signature bluegrass strains are supplemented with everything from jitterbug tunes to soaring musical theater ballads and the songs, played by an onstage band (augmented by pieces in the wings) that looks as if it has been housed In a rolling roadhouse (Eugene Lee provides the remarkably effective scenic design, which is warmly lit by designer Japhy Weideman) are filled with a kind of colloquial poetry.

Director Walter Bobbie, working with choreographer Josh Rhodes, deploys the slatted structure that houses the band to help give the show a sweeping cinematic feel, and although there are times when Rhodes' dances look as if they are aspiring to an inappropriate sort of edginess, a seamlessness the men's vision beautifully helps to unite the show's two storylines.

Equally important in making Bright Star cohere is Carmen Cusack's deeply felt, beautifully sung, and engagingly spirited turn as Alice. The actress melts hearts and beguiles as she delivers the show's opening number, "If You Knew My Story," and whether she's playing the coquette with Jimmy Ray when Alice is 16 or she's dryly praising Billy at 38, Cusack imbues the character with a spirit that proves simply irresistible.

Her performance is ably supported by the work of costume designer Jane Greenwood, who outfits her in terrific homespun frocks during the 1920s scenes and some lovely tailored suits worthy of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford for the 1940s moments of the musical.

As her two leading men, Shively delivers an eager and ever-so-wet-behind the ears turn as Billy and Nolan offers a gently solid and thoroughly warm-blooded performance as Jimmy Ray. Both men, too, match Cusack note-for-note vocally.

Director Bobbie has a superlative array of talent for the show's myriad supporting characters, from Dee Hoty, who brings gentle gravitas to her portrayal of Alice's quiet, long-suffering mother, to Stephen Bogardus, who thoroughly charms as Billy's good-ole-boy dad. Michael Mulheren makes Jimmy Ray's dad appropriately despicable, so much so that there are faint boos as he takes his bow, while Jeff Blumenkranz and Emily Padgett score big laughs throughout as Alice's two assistants. Hannah Ellers delivers a beautifully crafted performance as Billy's childhood sweetheart ,and Stephen Lee Anderson carefully reveals the humanity that lies underneath the exterior of Alice's stern, Bible-thumping father.

Anyone at all familiar with movies from the golden age of the studio era will sense from the show's outset that all of the characters in Bright Star will reach a happy ending. Nevertheless, the appealingly tuneful journey to the show's conclusion proves to be consistently satisfying and ultimately moving.

---- Andy Propst

Bright Star plays at the Cort Theatre (138 West 48th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: brightstarmusical.com.