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THEATER REVIEW: “Bright Star” at The Old Globe

The star in the title of the world premiere musical by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell might be the one you follow to your dream – or perhaps the one that leads to reconciliation and forgiveness.

“Bright Star” plays through Nov. 2 at the Old Globe Theatre.

No, Martin doesn’t perform, but he did write the book and co-write the music with Ms. Brickell. They used their Grammy-winning collaboration on “Love Has Come For You” as a starting point, then rewrote or wrote new songs as the “Bright Star” characters took shape.

Martin began his career as a banjo-playing standup comic, and you can expect lots of banjo in this show, which is set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. The score has a bluegrass/country/folk sound and includes some lively choreography by Josh Rhodes.

“Bright Star” jumps back and forth between 1923 and 1945, following the lives of four young people.

Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack), at 16, is the wild child and despair of her family; at 38, she is the editor of a Southern literary magazine.

Young Alice, daughter of a minister, falls for Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Wayne Alan Wilcox), the mayor’s son. Her unplanned pregnancy leads to a complicated set of coincidences – including an inhumane act by Jimmy Ray’s father, Mayor Dobbs (Wayne Duvall) – that may strain credulity a bit, but do offer genuine dramatic tension.

Meanwhile, Billy Cane (A.J. Shively) returns from World War II service with a career goal in mind: he wants to be a writer. He will move to Asheville to write for the Asheville Southern Journal. Will Margo (Hannah Elless) – the girl back home – wait?

That’s the main plot. But there’s a head-spinning amount of other stuff going on as well, too much for the show’s own good. Locations shift on a dime, peripheral characters come and go without a trace and it all gets more confusing than necessary.

That said, “Bright Star” has a lot going for it: a fine cast of mostly Broadway veterans, a terrific nine-piece orchestra, an imaginative set by Eugene Lee and excellent direction by Walter Bobbie.

Not to slight the bluegrass-folk-rock score, complete with a square dance hoedown, a great foot-stomping drinking song and a couple of lovely ballads.

Cusack anchors the cast as Alice, who moves as easily between time periods as she does changing costumes onstage, and tailors voice and vocal output to each situation.

Wilcox’s Jimmy Ray is a handsome devil, but though he does stand up to his father, his character seems to lack ambition and direction, making Alice’s attraction to him a bit puzzling.

Stephen Lee Anderson as Alice’s father Daddy Murphy and Duvall’s Mayor Dobbs represent the older generation in attitude and deed. The Mayor, in fact, proves to be such a poor excuse for a human that he gets hearty boos from the audience at curtain call.

Jeff Hiller and Kate Loprest provide some funny moments as editor Alice’s employees Daryl Ames and Lucy Grant.

Libby Winters is excellent as Alice’s sister and has one of the best songs (“Another Round.”) Stephen Bogardus makes a fine contribution as Daddy Cane.

“Bright Star,” based on a 100-year-old newspaper article Brickell found, has engaging characters, a listenable (if repetitive) score and gets a terrific production at the Globe. It could benefit from some trimming of excess characters and musical repetition (three songs about the pregnancy are two too many, for example) and more depth in the major characters.

The details

“Bright Star” plays through Nov. 2 at The Old Globe’s Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park in San Diego, California.

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (619) 234-5623 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.