Update: On March 12, Hale Centre Theatre cancelled performances of Bright Star through March 30, due to the coronavirus pandemic. On March 17, the company announced that all remaining performances were cancelled.
SANDY — Bright Star is a tender and endearing bluegrass musical that you would likely have heard more about had it not had the misfortune of premiering on Broadway in early 2016, placing it head to head with a little show called Hamilton. With a thoughtful book by comedy legend Steve Martin and lyrics by Edie Brickell, the show has a slow-burn quality for which many modern musicals don’t seem to have the patience. The story and characters reveal themselves slowly, even quietly, inviting the audience to imagine them as real people in extraordinary circumstances. The production shines light on all the joys and sorrows of being human. On stage are family relationships, romance, loss, ambition, and hope all expressed through song.
Directors Dave Tinney and Kelly DeHaan have done well in casting the two leads for this production. Donna Louden as Alice and Darick Pead as Jimmy Ray have strong, emotional voices, and they leave nothing wanting in their wide-ranging emotional scenes. These two actors must portray their characters across more than 20 years, and neither falls short in exploring the roots and the growth of those characters over time. Louden is especially soulful in her vocals and brought a great deal of passion to this powerful story.
While Louden and Pead perform in every show, in Hale tradition, the rest of the cast is on rotation. Other standouts I saw in the Monday/Wednesday/Friday cast were Carter Walker as Billy King, an aspiring young author, and Brianna Meikle as his editor and aspiring love interest. These two, and the rest of the focused and unflappable cast do a fantastic job of whisking the audience away to small-town North Carolina in the 1940s.
Every element of the production flows together beautifully to tell the story. Jenn Stapley Taylor’s scenic design works hand in hand with Tinney’s choreography. Marianne Ohran’s lighting along with Bobby Gibson’s projections provide lovely atmosphere. Dan Morgan’s sound design balances the ensemble, leads, and on-stage instrumentalists flawlessly. With the aid of Peggy Willis’s costumes, time and space flow effortlessly from scene to scene as the story winds to its very satisfying ending.
I hesitate to say much about the plot, as there are key revelations that are best enjoyed firsthand. This show could almost be qualified as a play with music. There is only one big song and dance number, and most of the songs are delivered more as codas to the action of the previous scene.
But I can reveal that Bright Star is a classic tale of love, loss and redemption. It was refreshing for this cynical fan of dramatic straight plays to sit back and enjoy spending time with characters whom I could not only relate to, but also who made me proud to be human. They rise, they fall, they keep going, knowing they are doing their best in difficult circumstances. Even the villain of the plot, Mayor Dobbs, played so well by Ric Starnes that he was booed in the curtain call, is humanized and allowed to voice the reasoning for his terrible decision. My favorite number of the show, “Sun’s Gonna Shine” was a prime example of the tenacious hope that infuses the character’s lives, even in the midst of tragedy. If you are a fan of high quality, feel-good entertainment with a solid blue-grass score Bright Star is the show for you.
Full disclosure: Our managing editor, Donella Walker, is the sister of Carter Walker, who plays Billy King in this production of Bright Star. To prevent a conflict of interest, Ms. Walker had no influence over the selection of reviewer or the content of the review, and she was not allowed to edit this review. Honest criticism in this review was encouraged.