Bright Star Shines at the Ahmanson Theatre

As I awaited showtime for Bright Star at the Ahmanson Theatre this past week, I was struck with a question that was a bit mind-boggling. It was: What can Steve Martin not do?

In the 1970’s, Martin solidified himself as a comedic genius with his stand up and film classics like The Jerk, moved into more mature work like Father of the Bride and Parenthood in the 1990’s, surprised his audience with his stunning debut (and best-selling) novel, Shop Girl (which is easily one of my most favorite books) and, not surprisingly, began to dabble with live theatre.

Penning the New York hit, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, audiences were once again treated to Martin’s expertly crafted blend of poignancy and wit. Throughout all of his ventures, Martin has also been an avid banjo player. When Along Comes Mary got to attend his show at the Hollywood Bowl in 2014, you can imagine I was intrigued to hear from him he was working on a new musical project with singer/songwriter, Edie Brickell, to be called Bright Star.

Fast forward three years (and five Tony nominations) later, and Bright Star has won the hearts of Broadway and theatergoers alike. Currently, on its first national tour, Bright Star’s first stop is none other than Los Angeles’ own Ahmanson Theatre at Center Theatre Group. I was thrilled to at last see this beautiful show as well as its original leading lady, Carmen Cusack, in her Tony-nominated role as Alice Murphy.

Carmen Cusack and Patrick Cummings.

Bright Star tells the inspiring story of Miss Murphy, a magazine editor in the 1940s. Since her job is to tell other people’s story, she decides its time that people hear her story for a change. Causing much stir in the 1920’s, we learn through flashbacks that Alice had a love affair with a local young man, Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Patrick Cummings), and got pregnant with him. At much dismay to her family, Alice is forced to give her baby boy up for adoption.

As Bright Star returns back and forth to the present day of 1946, we’re also introduced to Billy Cane (AJ Shively), a young and aspiring writer who has just returned home from the war. Anxious to make a name in the writing world, he catches the attention of Alice, who begins publishing his work.

The production opens with If You Knew my Story, a powerhouse number from Cusack which immediately introduces us to her vocal capability. We then are quickly introduced to Billy, who must learn from his father, Daddy Cane (David Atkinson), that his Mother passed away while Billy was at war. This brings us to the somber songs, She’s Gone and introduces us to Shively’s strong and powerful vocals. Shively shines opposite Cusack, who brings a maternal element as she mentors Billy in the harsh world of publication.

What makes Bright Star unique and different from your usual musical is the choreography and use of the ensemble. Bringing to mind 2007’s revival of Company, several of the cast members multi-task on stage as they play their own sets of string instruments. In addition to the orchestra, much of the cast perform with violins, bass, and banjos on stage, it is definitely clear that Steve Martin co-conceived this musical.

AJ Shively and Cusack.

During the final numbers in Act 1, Please Don’t Take Him and A Man’s Gotta Do, we are taken back to that fateful day when 17-year-old Alice gives birth to her son, and he is abruptly taken from her by her father and Dr. This dynamic finale is both terrifying and memorizing. It is clear to see why Cusack earned a Tony nomination for this role as her young Alice pleas and begs with her father to not take her son away from her. These final moments are musical theatre at its best; combing an expertly crafted fusion of light effects, choreography, singing, and progression.

I give major credit to Bright Star’s Choreographer, Josh Rhodes, for creating such a compelling blend of dance and movement that the ensemble performs effortlessly throughout the entire course of the show. Rhodes is no stranger to creating strong numbers as his resume includes Company and Sondheim’s Birthday Celebration for PBS and such notable West End performances including Sweeney Todd with Emma Thompson.

Another fantastic number is Another Round, where Billy gets to loosen up at the local watering hole, The Shiny Penny, and the audience is treated to a full ensemble dance number. Instruments and all!

As Bright Star unfolds and more questions are answered, you can be assured that you will leave this performance humming the songs and wanting to catch a bluegrass show. The entire cast is fantastic, and who doesn’t love a night out in Downtown Los Angeles? Arrive early and take advantage of the Center’s outdoor Pinot Bar. We enjoyed a gorgeous, brisk evening sipping our cocktails while sitting close to the heated lamps. Surrounding us were the views of the city, the sunset peeking through the clouds, the Center Theatre Group’s dazzling architecture all lit up, and even hearing the fountains nearby.

Bright Star is playing at the Ahmanson through November 19th. Get your tickets HERE.

(*Disclosure: I attended this performance on behalf of this review. All opinions are my own.

Photos: © 2017 Craig Schwartz. Courtesy of the Ahmanson Theatre.)

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