On the Sunny Side of the Mountain – a review of “Bright Star”

Mike Buzzelli

Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant

Like two trains running on the same track, Alice Murphy (Erin Lindsey Krom) and Billy Kane’s (Miller Jay Kraps) lives crash into each other in bizarre and unexplained ways in Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s bluegrass musical, “Bright Star.”

The story is set in North Carolina, in two separate time periods (1923 – 1924 and 1945 – 1946)

Alice, editor and chief of the Asheville Southern Journal, has a story to tell – and it’s a doozy.

When she was a young girl (in 1926), she was smitten by the mayor’s son, Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Jerreme Rodriguez). Mayor Dobbs (Darrel R. Whitney), however, had bigger plans for his son.

After a romantic night by the lake, Alice discovers she’s pregnant. Jimmy Ray is ecstatic about Alice’s news, but his father is not. Mayor Dobbs and his assistant Stanford (David Ieong) send Alice off to a remote cabin in the woods for nine months to have the child in secret.

On the day of his birth, Alice is overjoyed at the sight of her baby boy, but Mayor Dobbs and her own father (Daniel Pivovar) conspire to rip the child from her arms and give it up for adoption. The brightest day turns to darkest night.

Meanwhile (in 1945), Billy returns home from World War II. While he was a soldier in the war, he spent some of his time writing for Stars and Stripes Magazine – sending clippings home to his beloved parents. While his homecoming with his father (Scott Patrick Calhoon) is joyous, it turns sour rather quickly when he learns his mother passed while he was overseas.

After morning his mother with a touching tribute (with the song “She’s Gone”), Billy meets up with his friend Margo (Marnie Quick) who convinces him to sell his stories to the very prestigious Asheville Southern Journal where he meets Alice Murphy, and the two storylines converge.

The play is “inspired” from true events of  life of William Moses Gould Helms and the 1902 folk song, “The Ballad of the Iron Mountain Baby” written about him.  Martin and Brickell shred the Iron Mountain tale into tiny pieces. It’s a very loose adaptation, but it’s expertly done.

While some members of the audience may unravel the central mystery of the plot quicker than others, “Bright Star” is about the journey not the destination.

Erin Lindsey Krom as Alice Murphy in “Bright Star.” photo by Deana Muro of Deana Muro Photography

Almost everyone in “Bright Star” is a star, the cast is loaded with talent. But Krom is a supernova, exploding with intensity. She wows the audience with the opening number, “If you knew my story,” and never lets them go.

Rodriguez plays Dobbs with swagger, oozing with charisma.

Kraps plays Billy as an earnest and enthusiastic young man with oodles of homespun charm. He’s sort of a more intelligent version of the Steve Martin character Navin R. Johnson from “The Jerk.”

Whitney’s Mayor Dobbs has a powerful and commanding voice. He is the central villain (and his actions are vile), but Whitney finds a way to humanize him in a short final scene with the character.

The Asheville Southern Journal has two additional employees, Daryl (Nicholas Kochanov) and Lucy (Alysa Finnegan). Kochanov and Finnegan are a delight together.

Finnegan also performs with Kraps and the ensemble in a fantastic musical moment singing “Another Round.” It’s a bouncy and bright tune.

The bluegrass music is frothy and fun. Douglas Levine and his orchestra do a magnificent job.

The set has a rustic charm thanks to set designer Johnmichael Bohach (Front Porch Theatricals aptly lives up to its name with a very active front porch in this production).

Director (and ‘Burgh Vivant contributor) Nick Mitchell does a stellar job with the show. His staging of the end of the first act – utilizes the New Hazlett space in a unique way – enhancing the catastrophic actions of a despicable character. It’s a gasp-inducing moment.

The first act break is incredibly dark and dire, but the show is effervescent and exuberant. “Bright Star” is a truly dazzling sight.

-MB

“Bright Star” plays through May 26 at the New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, Pittsburgh, PA 15212. For more information, click here

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