Standing ovations in Utah are rarely honest; they are insecure and often undeserved. Utah audiences want so badly to be polite, to be seen correctly observing social ritual, they hand them out like participation trophies. Not so at the curtain call for Friday’s opening of Bright Star on Pioneer Theater Company’s stage.
To say the crowd leapt to its feet implies there was a moment of thought that called for a leap, a moment of consideration to be accounted for. Zapped is a better word. Yes. Friday’s opening night crowd zapped to its feet, electrified and roaring in adulation. I looked around, stunned at the tears streaming down the faces around me as I blinked drops out of my own eyes.
Yeah, it was a hell of a thing.
Bright Star is a unique creature, a collaboration between unlikely collaborators Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, both known better for their excellence in other artistic endeavors. And while this is a musical, in the sense that here are actors singing music in a theater, it’s not exactly that either. It’s something more honest, subtle, darker and human. It’s quiet, beautiful and moving.
Bright Star follows two timelines, parallel stories of young people at that moment in their lives where the future spills out before them. They are ready for what’s next but hobbled by tradition, small-town secrets, protocols and social mores they don’t yet understand. I won’t spend too much time on the plot, save to say there are boys and girls caught up in first love and naive ambitions and we watch them move through the pains we all must endure to learn how those things are more complicated and serious than young hearts know.
The tale begins with Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack), in a doorway of a broke down shack singing the prologue “If you knew my story.” She reached out and grabbed us right from the get go. Cusack has a unique voice, clearly classically trained and honed on Broadway (she famously played Elphaba in the first touring production of Wicked). But hers is not the “Broadway” voice littering the theater landscape as performing arts schools pump out technically proficient performers with no absolutely no idea how to connect with an audience. Cusack knows. She sings with gravel and soul and, for this role, a country twang. Her voice has the winking twinkle of Loretta Lynn with massive pipes underneath the hood. And while there are many reasons to see this play, Cusack is the foremost. The women sitting next to me were following the tour, like Deadheads, to see Cusack in this role.
In fact, all the women in this production are brilliant, Mama Murphy (Allison Briner-Dardenne) emerges from the shadows in the heart wrenching “Please Don’t Take Him” to back Cusack up with note-for-note harmony. Margo Crawford (Maddie Shea Baldwin), Billy Crane’s (A.J. Shively) striving sweetheart is a dash of color and life with her plaintive first-act song “Asheveille.” Kaitlyn Davidson gives us similar lift in act-two as the boozy city girl Lucy Grant in the hootenanny Charleston that is “Another Round.” While Shively stands out as the play’s cock-eyed optimist, the men folk—who are otherwise lunkheads and enforcers of the patriarchy—are competent and do their bit but they can’t really hold a candle to the women. Sorry fellas, but you probably already knew that.
The chorus and on-stage band are also a powerful character. They move in choreographed sync with the action on the fore stage and bring gospel force to the music. If Alice Murphy is the preacher, this is her choir and they truly take us to church.
And then there is that set. It’s not much to look at first glance but trust me it’s magical, anchored by the wooden shack that whirls and moves around the stage. I was in a play in high school that had a log cabin set. It took 10 stagehands to move and we cringed every time it had to rotate for a scene change creaking and scraping all the way round. This set moves like swallows in murmation, gliding silently into dozens of permutations.
And I could go on and on. This production is a rare thing, one of the most moving theatrical experiences I’ve ever witnessed. Salt Lake audiences have the unheard of chance to see it with almost the entire original Broadway cast and band. When I interviewed Shively, he told me that it is true theatrical experience, a production that fills the space and brings the audience and players together for a shared moment. Now I understand what he meant. In the darkness, I felt the crowd around me and the players on the stage all connected. There was the power of congregation in that room. It felt like church and when the spell was broken we were all left blinking in the house lights, newly baptized.
Bright Star continues at the Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theater through Jan. 27, 2018 (a long run for a touring production). Do. Not. Miss it. For tickets and information, click here.