Opening night at The Ahmanson is always a big deal. Sometimes Hollywood’s favorite stars arrive to be one of the first to see the newest production in Los Angeles. When the Center Theater Group Los Angeles announced it was bringing Bright Star to the Music Center, I knew I had to see it.
First of all Steve Martin and Edie Brickell wrote this musical based on their 2013 Grammy-winning album, “Love Has Come for You.” The experience inspired them to work together again and write the music, lyrics and story of Bright Star.
Second I was excited to see A.J. Shively. He has been playing Billy Cane. His mother and I share a best friend. We all graduated from UCLA and have kept in touch for 35 years. A.J. has been a Bright Star from the day he was born.
I remember the excitement his mother displayed when A.J. got into the University of Michigan B.F.A program, and later moved to New York to be cast in his first Broadway production La Cage aux Folles with Kelsey Grammar.
When Steve Martin (Grammy, Emmy and Oscar winning actor, SNL comedian and author) and Edie Brickell (Grammy Winner and lead singer for New Bohemians, remember her 1988 hit “What I Am”? If not Google it) cast the show, they took one look at A.J., and knew he was their Billy Cane in the show since 2014. He performed in the World Premier at The Old Globe in San Diego to an enthusiastic audience and then went with the show to Broadway helping Bright Star earn five Tony Award nominations for Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book, Best Lead Actress and Best Orchestrations. Shively personally earned a Drama Desk nomination. Now he was about to step onto the Ahmanson stage to be received by a Los Angeles audience.
As I picked up my tickets, the paparazzi were all lined up to photograph Modern Family stars Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Aubrey Anderson Emmons.
Sharon Lawrence (Me, Myself & I and NYPD Blues) took the red carpet before Eric McCormack (Will and Grace) and Lea Thompson (Back to the Future) strode out.
Right before the show started, Steve Martin, Edie Brickell and singer/songwriter Paul Simon gathered and went into the theatre to find their seats.
The minuet Carmen Cusack belted out the first song of the show “If You Knew My Story” directed by Tony Award winner Walter Bobbie and brilliantly choreographed by Josh Rhodes, I knew it was going to be a hit show in LA.
The show opens with a small, moveable wooden skeletal framed house that is used as a platform for a contemporary bluegrass band. The audience can partially see the performers throughout the show, as they play a guitar, mandolin, banjo, violin, viola, fiddle, piano, and drums.
When I hear the banjo, I think of Martin, an accomplished banjo player sitting down and writing the sweet melodic music with Brickell memorable lyrics.
Above the stage is a small train track with a model train traveling along a track throughout the show. Set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, the story is divided into two separate time frames. Part of Bright Star is set in the 1920’s and other in the 40’s. Each with its own set of boy meet girl and falls in love, betrayal and redemption.
The 1920’s is a rich tapestry of flirtatious and spunky Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack) meeting and falling in love with Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Patrick Cummings). They are adorable together in “Whoa, Mama.” Alice’s father Daddy Murphy (Stephen Lee Anderson) knows his daughter is a little wildcat with a mind of her own and preaches about damnation while singing “Firmer Hand/Do Right.”
When Jimmy Ray’s father, Mayor Josiah Dobbs (Jeff Austin) realizes his plans for his son might go off course due to Alice, he persuades his son to move on, especially when he learns of Alice’s pregnancy. Mayor Dobbs gathers a group of men to intimidate and threaten Alice. Trying to force the young lovers apart, the two last numbers in Act One “Please Don’t Take Him” and “A Man’s Gotta Do” will have you on the edge of your seat.
The choreography of the train scene with the ensemble using chairs as drums is spellbinding. I held my breath when Mayor Dobbs does the unthinkable. One can only be hopeful when hearing the the song “Sun’s Gonna Shine,” that Jimmy Ray and Alice’s love remains strong and will hopefully prevail the obstacles and heartache they face.
A.J. appears in almost all of the 1940s scenes, first as a young soldier coming home from the war to his family in Hayes Creek North Carolina. His homecoming is melancholy when his father (David Atkinson) tells Billy his mother died.
His mother’s love of words inspires him to become a writer. While home, he also realizes his childhood friend Margo Crawford (played by the adorable Maddie Shea Baldwin) has grown into a beautiful woman. She’s had a crush on him for years and supports his desires to be a writer. Margo edits his manuscripts, while working in the town’s bookstore.
Lucky for Billy, his tenacity and persistence gets him past the hilarious assistants at the Asheville Southern Journal, Daryl (Jeff Blumenkrantz) and the sweet and tart Lucy Grant (Kaitlyn Davidson). This dynamic duo work for literary editor Alice Murphy, who has developed some of the South’s greatest writers. Remember, this is 22 years later, and when Billy starts writing for Alice, the dark layer of gloom in her life begins to lift. She feels a familiarity with Billy.
One of my favorite scenes was with Billy, Daryl and Lucy during the “Another Round” number inside the Shiny Penny. Lucy may be a lady during the week at work, but not on Friday night. The choreography was fun and A.J.’s timing is impeccable.
Afterwards the plot lines of the two time periods come together beautifully and the audience is toe-tapping and applauding throughout the standing ovation.
Bright Star is a show that shines and will have you walking out of the Ahmanson smiling.
The review was also featured in The Stage Review –https://thestagereview.net/2017/10/24/guest-review-bright-star-shimmers-los-angeles/