The Farmers Alley Theatre production of “Bright Star” fills the stage with sweetness, song and a satisfying story from times gone by.
Directed by Kathy Mulay and billed as a bluegrass musical, it was written and composed by Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin) and singer-songwriter Edie Brickell, who hit the charts in 1988 with her debut album Edie Brickell & New Bohemians.
Full of heartfelt sentiment and earnest characters, the story is set in North Carolina and told in two timeframes, the early 1920s and the mid-1940s. The tale is anchored by Alice Murphy, played by Michelle Duffy, who opens the show promising “If you knew my story, you’d have a good story to tell.”
What’s really good is Duffy’s voice — with hints of Reba McIntyre, given the southern material – delivering notice of some excellent music coming your way.
When we meet Alice in 1945, she is editor of the Asheville Southern Journal, skeptical but encouraging of young writer Billy Cane, just home from the war. Played by Jason Koch with a confident physicality, Billy has stopped in his hometown of Hayes Creek to visit his father, where he learns his mom has passed. He touches base with gal-pal Margo Crawford — played by Natalie Duncan with a light touch and bright voice — before heading off to the big city with his folder full of writing clips.
Alice buys one of Billy’s stories for $10 – “Not to publish, but as an investment” – and sends him back to his typewriter. When she takes us back in time, taking her hair down and donning an apron, Duffy does a fine job transitioning from 40-something to 18, to tell her story of young love and its consequences.
Flirting with Jimmy Ray Dobbs, played by the ever-boyish Jeremy Koch, the pair talk about books, writing and college, and take turns combating parental control in two lively songs, “Firmer Hand/Do Right” and “A Man’s Gotta Do,” each of which layers dueling vocals to great effect.
The lyrics affirm the social norms of the time and place, as Alice’s parents scold her for being a “black sheep” and his father shakes his head when Jimmy Ray objects to the idea of marrying someone to benefit the family business. He wants to marry someone with whom he can carry on a conversation! “Have you ever heard me carrying on a conversation with your mother?” scoffs his father.
After the pair sneaks out of a dance to find sweetness at dusk on a picnic blanket, thunder and lightning and a visit to the doctor soon portend the consequences, which include sending Alice away and the crumbling of her relationship to Jimmy Ray, whose father is the villain of the story, played with gusto by area favorite D. Neil Bremer.
Smooth work by the ensemble includes tight harmonies, various dances and double duty moving set pieces. A scrim backdrop is used to great effect to expand the theatre’s stage — displaying changing stills and video — especially when Billy sets off for the big city, “riding” three different buses and trains for the show’s signature song “Bright Star.”
The show’s technical staff shine in the production’s sound, lighting and set and offstage musicians led by music director Cole P. Abod –couldn’t have done better.
The optimism and committed performances, along with powerful voices and top-notch tunes combine with a fast pace to make an enjoyable show, in spite of the dusty theme of punishing a young woman for becoming pregnant —“You bewitched him!”
What sends the production aloft is the music, best spotlighted in songs led by Duffy and Duncan, and duets by the two couples. Occasional dips into melodrama that nearly overwhelm the intimate space are to be forgiven when the satisfying plot twists come together in a comforting finale.
This review supported by The Arts Coverage Initiative, a collaboration between Encore and the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo and funded by a grant from the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation.