I heard a lot of advance positive buzz about “Bright Star,” the musical created by comedian-musician Steve Martin and singer-songwriter Edie Brickell, which I saw Saturday at the Phoenix Theatre. Much of the anticipation was due to the fact that founding Phoenix member Suzanne Fleenor, who recently returned to Indy to reside, was directing and that she had assembled a blue-ribbon cast consisting of both veteran and new talent. As it turned out, the hype was well-deserved. In fact, the show was much, much more than I expected.
Inspired by a mysterious true story, “Bright Star” is a romantic comedy, with some plot occurrences that are anything but, Taking place in 1945 with flashbacks to the early 1920s, it centers on Alice Murphy (Molly Garner) at two different periods of her life, when she is a carefree girl growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains and a second, when she is a successful newspaper writer in the Asheville, North Carolina. Her story becomes intertwined with that of Billy Cane (Ian Laudano), an aspiring young writer and returning Word War II vet, with whom she shares a curious connection. It would be a crime to reveal much more about the story line, but suffice to say, it is a funny, charming and ironic tale that will invest you in its characters and keep you fully engaged throughout.
Theatre lovers should rejoice that Fleenor has returned to her artistic home. Like she did for last season’s hit “Fun Home” at the Phoenix, Fleenor has done a remarkable job of directing the well-oiled, fast-paced “Bright Star,” and guiding its well-cast ensemble. Herself a gifted actor, the vivid portrayals of her triple-threat cast members are no doubt influenced and informed by her own skills and talents as a seasoned performer.
Chief among them were Garner as the blithe, yet strong-willed Alice Murphy as a girl and later the self-assured and wizened professional she becomes. Possessing a dynamic stage presence, Garner’s vocal power, especially in her solo rendition of “At Long Last,” was only eclipsed by her affecting dramatic performance portraying a strong woman, who despite undergoing severe trauma, manages to not succumb to bitterness and victimhood, but remains hopeful instead. Garner, who was striking in her Indy debut as Annie Cannon in this summer’s Summit Performance show, “Silent Sky” is a formidable addition to the city’s pool of professional actors.
Returning to his hometown to make his Phoenix debut was Patrick Clements as Jimmy Ray Dobbs, the teenaged boyfriend of Alice Murphy. Both commanding and imposing, Clements’ chemistry, as a young man, with Garner was convincing. Later, as a the wounded adult who carries a haunting secret, he was equally effective. Clements and Garners’ characters’ romantic interactions were more than believable in their duets of “What Could Be Better,” and “I Can’t Wait.”
Also showing impressive vocal and dramatic skills was Phoenix newcomer Laudano as fresh-faced, affable Billy, who yearns to become a writer in the vein of all the great Southern writers he emulates. With his talent, matinée-idol looks and appeal, Laudano was ebullient as he shined in the show’s title song “Bright Star.” A recent college graduate, this young actor has the potential to make a name for himself in musical theatre.
Appealing as well was Betsy Norton as childhood friend Margo Crawford, who carries a torch for Billy and waits patiently for him to exit the friendship zone. This is not the first time Norton has caught my attenton. I first saw her as Janet in “The Rocky Horror Show” and most recently, in Defiance Comedy’s “Autumn Takes a Tumble” at this year’s IndyFringe Festival. A natural talent, Norton makes acting looks effortless.
In a small, yet crowd-pleasing and scene-stealing role, John Vessels was delightful as Alice’s, campy, intimidating gate-keeping assistant Daryl Ames.
Another Phoenix founding member and one of Indy’s most prolific character actors, Charles Goad, outdid himself as Billy’s father, the heavy handed, mean-spirited, amoral Mayor Josiah Dobbs, who perpetrates one of the most despicable crimes imaginable. In a scene that closes Act 1 and one of the most shocking I have ever seen, Goad turned in a striking performance, as he sung “A Man’s Gotta Do (Reprise),” that was absolutely bone-chilling.
Adding to the luster of the production was the nine-piece band, led by music director and pianist Brent Marty, that played Martin & Brickells’s richly captivating country/bluegrass score, consisting of ballads and square-dance tunes heavy on piano and strings. I particularly enjoyed Anastazie Vithovaut’s fiddle playing which really moved me during her haunting solo late in the show.
Also deserving of praise is Carol Worcel for her snappy, slice-of-Americana choreography, which added to the authenticity of the show’s periods.
Knowing full well that the best directors always surround themselves with the finest designers and technician, Fleenor’s creative team, consisting of lighting designer Laura Glover, scenic designer Rob Koharchik, costume designer Steve Hollenbeck and sound designer Michael Lamirand created a world that was winsome, magical and even a bit mystical.
Not for those the cynical, and certainly not the cold-hearted, “Bright Star” is just the sort of escapism for anyone yearning for the quintessential happy ending. If you are seeking a gift tied up with a nice bow, this uplifting show is for you.
“Bright Star” runs through October 7, Thursdays at 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets are $33-$37 and available at the Phoenix Theatre box office, by calling (317) 635-7529 or visiting phoenixtheatre.org,