Theater Preview: Bright Star at Pioneer Memorial

Bright Star, opening Jan. 12 at Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, at the University of Utah, is a unique creature. The love child of Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, the play is a mashup of the musical theater form with Americana roots music. The music, written by Martin and Brickell, is not typical show-stopping fare, at least in the over-the-top Greatest Showman sense.

Bright Star’s subtle take on the form had a short run on Broadway, opening and closing between February and June of 2016. The play was a critical darling but it opened down the street from Hamilton, which is like vying for an NBA championship against Michael Jordan’s Bulls. (Something, any Utah Jazz fan of a certain age can understand.)

Because many in the cast and production team felt the play didn’t get a chance to shine in the shadow of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s juggernaut, they stuck together to consider what could be next. While most relatively successful Broadway plays morph into a touring production, they are usually produced with an alternate touring cast. No so with Bright Star, said original cast member A.J. Shively, 30, who portrays the play’s young hero, Billy Cane.

“We all fell in love with this work,” Shively said in a recent interview between performances in Los Angeles. “We all jumped at the chance to carry it on.”

That’s right. Starting this weekend, the Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, will host a run of Bright Star with nearly all of the original cast.

“So many of us wanted to stay involved,” Shively said. “And that’s not even the cast.  Almost all of the original band is returning. The only new band member is a banjo player because our original banjo player on Broadway just had a baby and couldn’t make the schedule work. There is a very strong commitment to this show.”

Shively, who grew up in Ohio, was a young dreamer, much like his character in Bright Star. After college, he opted to forgo graduate school to take his chances in New York. He almost immediately landed a key role as Jean-Michele in the wildly successful revival of La Cage Aux Folles, staring Douglas Hodge and Kelsey Grammar, in 2010.  

“I just figured I’d move to New York and see how it went and then figured I could always go to graduate school. La Cage ended up being my graduate school,” Shively said. “First, I had to learn how to live in the real world and really learn how to do what I’d trained for. It was a very lucky thing for that to be on my path so quickly after moving to New York.”

But if La Cage Aux Folles subbed in for a grad school, Bright Star would be his doctorate. The young actor was tapped early on in the production process to play Billy and he was there from the early workshop stages.

“It was amazing to be in the room and be a part of that process,” he said. “Steve and Edie were literally starting with a penciled-in outline. You have to think and advocate for these characters. There were a lot of tough choices. I saw entire story lines cut from the show as well as beautiful music. But in the end it’s all in the service to making the best show possible.”

Shively’s character was inspired by J.D. Salinger the author of The Catcher in the Rye. Like Salinger, Billy is a veteran who returns from the great war, wanting to write, haunted and hungry. The original play follows two parallel timelines that intertwine and weave together complicated tale.

“Billy pushes forward through any obstacle,” Shively said. “I’m once again in a young, juvenile role but Billy is more deeply drawn than just some sweet young kid. I find myself disappearing into the part. I’m still learning new things about Billy. And, it sounds silly but this character has been helpful to me off stage. I even find myself turning to lyrics and lines from the show that have helped me through tough times in my own life.”

Shively is excited to share the production with the Utah audieince and explains that the play is quiet and full of soul.

“I always tell people that this play is a true theatrical experience,” he says. “There’s not a lot of big production tricks and it really affects people. It is about sharing a space in a hall with a few hundred other people and getting lost in this beautifully told, simple story. This is why I think theater is important, it offers us a chance to be swept away.”

Bright Star opens Friday, Jan. 12, 2018 in the Simmons Memorial Theater at the University of Utah and runs through Jan. 27, 2018. For tickets and information click here.

Jeremy Pugh
Jeremy Pugh
Jeremy Pugh is Salt Lake magazine's Editor. He covers culture, history, the outdoors and whatever needs a look. Jeremy is also the author of the book "100 Things to Do in Salt Lake City Before You Die" and the co-author of the history, culture and urban legend guidebook "Secret Salt Lake."

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