Modesty and gentleness rarely prove to be selling points in a Broadway musical these days, as “Bright Star” learned in spring 2016.
It opened in March, got hammered by “Hamilton” at the Tony Awards in June, closed two weeks later, then lay dormant until a national tour set out in October 2017. That tour came to Belk Theater Tuesday in the PNC Broadway Lights season, giving the state where the show is set a chance to assess its virtues. It has quite a few.
First, the book. That comes from a writer – Steve Martin, working with an original story by Edie Brickell – it’s about writers and editors, and it’s suffused with a love of language: Language as the thing that connects us to other people, lifts us out of potentially dead-ended lives, allows us not only to dream but to express our dreams.
Second, August Eriksmoen’s orchestrations, which earned a Tony nomination but lost to … you know what. The songs by Martin and Brickell, though not always melodically memorable, set comic and dramatic moods effectively. Eriksmoen helped them craft a sound that’s part folk, part bluegrass, part country, part Broadway-anthem-with-arms-extended-in-triumph. The six-piece band, led by conductor-pianist P. Jason Yarcho, plays vividly.
Third, the ensemble. These heroes stomp, sing, do choreographed movement, serve as a kind of Greek chorus in the shadows and whisk sets and props on and off with efficiency that never calls attention to itself.
Fourth, fathers. How often do we see dads in musicals, except as bewildered oafs or quickly slain Disney patriarchs? “Bright Star” has three: a tyrannical mayor (Jeff Austin), an affectionate farmer (David Atkinson) and a Bible-gripper too worried about his reputation (John Leslie Wolfe). All play important roles in the life of Alice Murphy, and none come off as stereotypes.
Fifth, a lovely part for whoever plays Alice. Carmen Cusack got a Tony nomination in her Broadway debut, and Audrey Cardwell (who took over this touring role in March) touches all the emotional bases: giddiness, melancholy, infatuation, lust, intellectual rigor and more. Alice must be a credible linchpin between two improbable halves of narrative, and Cardwell is.
The earlier part takes place in 1923 in rural Zebulon, where young Alice loves Jimmy Ray Dobbs (appealing Patrick Cummings). The mayor wants his son to inherit the family business with no emotional attachments and steps between Jimmy Ray and his intended. Tragedy follows, thrusting Alice into a grown-up world we see 23 years later.
There she edits the Asheville Southern Journal, which has published Hemingway and McCullers and becomes the goal of Billy Cane (Henry Gottfried), a soldier back from World War II with a pocketful of stories. What happens then turns the script from a movingly realistic piece to a clunky fairy tale, though Martin and Brickell eventually set things right.
The whole affair, believable or not, has a refreshing tenderness. Even the inevitable full-cast encore, often a cue for frenzy, doesn’t overpower us. Whether or not this suited Broadway, it might suit anyone who doesn’t need dazzlement every moment of the night.
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.
WHEN: Through July 1 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday.
WHERE: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.
RUNNING TIME: 145 minutes with one intermission.
TICKETS: $25-$114.50. Also $25 for student rush or for any buyer less than two hours before curtain.
DETAILS: 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org.