OGDEN — Bright Star, written by comedian Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, is based on a true story of a woman who reflects back, telling the story of finding herself pregnant and facing an uncertain future in the 1920s and also of her current life in the 1940s. Set to wonderful bluegrass music, this tale that had a short-lived experience on Broadway is now making its way around the theatres in Utah, and we are all the richer for it.
The Ziegfeld production, directed by Caleb Parry, is a truly magnificent evening that reminded me of everything that good live theatre is all about. One of the main characters, Alice Murphy, played by Jordyn Aspyn, sings in the beginning, “if you knew my story, you’d have a good story to tell,” and that is exactly what Parry has done with this production. All of the elements have been drawn together in exactly the right way to tell a haunting yet magical story. I laughed, I cried, my feet were tapping, and I was ready at the end to go get tickets to see it again.
One of the strongest elements of this production is the set design, also by Parry. In contrast to other productions I have seen recently that have ample amounts of money and do a fine job with pomp and circumstance, the Ziegfeld has mastered the art of understanding how to do more with less and how to work magic with simplicity. On the back wall of the stage during the show were several set pieces, including a door that followed Alice throughout the show. Without revealing spoilers, there is a line that Aspyn as Alice says where she says someone is so familiar when they came through the door, and other moments of symbolism regarding the door, that it is obvious that Parry put a great deal of thought into the set design and how it could be incorporated into the flow of the show. This care also extended into the fantastic choreography by Joshua Samuel Robinson, who had beautiful dance moments in numbers, such as in, “Farmer Hand/Do Right,” and, “Another Round.” But there was also the full movement of the ensemble with the set in songs like, “Bright Star,” that was reminiscent of other strong ensemble pieces like, “Come From Away,” where the staging and cast are so integral to the show and the movement of the story that it is easy to tell that choreographer, director, and cast have become a seamless unit that have merged together to tell a gorgeous tale that is tragic, moving, ultimately happy and inspiring all at the same time.
Musically, the ensemble was also strong with their harmonies, and I also enjoyed the directorial choice to keep the entire cast on stage throughout the entire show. This choice is something I have seen done well in some productions and poorly in others, but Parry has guided this cast to keep the focus on the leading players in the right moments while adding the right emphasis where needed through the entire cast. Music director Kelli Morris kept all the songs at the level needed to move the story forward, and while bluegrass will never be a favorite of mine, I found myself mesmerized by the entire premise and sound. What really made the experience for me was the sound design by Becky Knowles, with I am sure added direction from Parry, because while most productions of this nature would have had canned sounds to bring out the nature of the deep south that the story was set in, these sounds, from the rain to the bugs to even a baby’s cry, were provided by different cast members on stage, and the intimate feel of the story in the small atmosphere of the Ziegfeld theatre as the cast created all the elements of the experience was exactly what has been missing from live theatre as we have handled the COVID crisis—and is exactly why I am glad I have been vaccinated and can safely return to the theatre now.
Jimmy Rae, played by Josh Durfey, had excellent chemistry with Aspyn as Alice, and Billy, played by Dylan Painter, was a wonderful character who never gave up hope at trying to reach his dreams. I also really enjoyed Emma Rosenlund as Margo, the character who stood by Billy as his support and cheerleader. What I will say for Bright Star and the direction by Parry is that I love being able to leave a show and say that no one really stood out because the entirety of the show stood out. Many shows are what we look at as star vehicles, something that can bring one person to fame, but there are those who can really tell a beautiful story of what is, what could be, and what should be, and shows how art can be created when a group of people work together to make magic, and I would put the creation of Bright Star at the Ziegfeld in that category. The story itself covers some challenging truths, of how people and society try to control others’ choices because of trying to save a “good name” or make up a woman’s mind for them, and that is all part of what makes the telling of this story even more timely and beautiful in its simplicity and strength.