Review: Cusack shines in folksy, uneven ‘Bright Star’

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Carmen Cusack shines bright in the Curran’s production of “Bright Star,” playing through Dec. 17th in San Francisco. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

There is special providence when it comes to falling in love.

Of the many solid things that The Curran’s uneven production of “Bright Star” does, capturing those anxious moments of young love is one of the most joyous. There is a delightful and easy chemistry that comes from Alice and Jimmy Ray, and watching them sneak out of the outdoor dance on a warm North Carolina night to continue to fuel their youthful passion is superbly sweet.

But much like Romeo and Juliet, Alice and Jimmy Ray struggle to sustain their secret love. Actions happen, adults get involved and attempt to fantastically ruin everything, especially those two lives that show such promise together.

While moments like these are what make a show memorable, there are just not enough of them. The show, which was nominated for the 2016 best play Tony award (some rapping play won) delves deeply into melodrama, and some situations that take some serious stretches for the audience to buy into.

But hey, escapist entertainment might just be what the kiddos are into these days, and if that is true, then this piece will certainly wet those proverbial whistles.

In this production, directed smartly by Walter Bobbie, it is 1945 and Billy Cane (A.J. Shively) returns home from the war. Upon his return, as a budding author, he finds himself in an Asheville publishing office trying to get his worked accepted for a literary journal.

That leads to the introduction of Alice, the editor at the publishing office, (a phenomenal Carmen Cusack) speaking wistfully about her youth and the promise her life showed in those younger days. In a series of flashbacks, she is a saucy young lady who has an innocently strained back and forth with her parents (Stephen Lee Anderson and Allison Briner-Dardenne), nothing harmful but fun-loving. It’s a relationship, especially with her aging father, that pays off with a painful beautiful scene later in the drama.

We are able to see her blossoming love with the dashing Jimmy Ray (a tortured turn by Patrick Cummings). A hopeful union leads to some challenging peaks and valleys, hitting the apex with some awful decision making by Daddy Murphy and the purely evil Mayor Dobbs (Jeff Austin).

This story takes lots of unlikely twists and turns, which ultimately leads to a denouement that is inevitably predictable once a few pieces come together. And while the finale may stretch the imagination, it is in fact handled with nice doses of humor.

While that unlikeliness in the story is certainly present, there is an even more unlikely portrayal that comes from the saccharine nature of this version of North Carolina in the 1920s and 1940s. Everyone is loaded with folksy charm, including the closeted Daryl (Jeff Blumenkrantz), whom others poke simple fun of because of this fact. This is also a North Carolina that seems to be in perfect harmony, with not a single Black person anywhere near the town. While this might have the feel of mesmerizing hubris, it is not exactly honest.

Despite these inadequacies, there are certainly things that stand out. Not all of Edie Brickell and Steve Martin’s music brings the house down, but plenty of it does. And that’s not hard to do when you have Cusack, who darts nicely between youthful ideal and adult hardened pragmatism. She’s also a vocal dynamo who sings from the gut. Numbers such as “Sun is Gonna Shine” and the gospel richness of “At Last” are tunes that Cusack handles with all the gusto of a Broadway wonder. And while my musical palate has little experience with bluegrass, watching the nine-piece orchestra with their fiddles and banjos fly around the stage in a moving set design by Eugene Lee, with some great colors on the costumes of Jane Greenwood works very, very well.

Despite the flaws, it is certainly a show that offers plenty of joy and pathos for everyone. But with some higher stakes and deeper truth, this bright star has the potential to shine even brighter.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

The Curran presents “Bright Star”
Written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell
Directed by Walter Bobbie
The Word: While the story is flimsy, the music is solid and Carmen Cusack alone is worth the price of admission.
Stars: 3.5 out of 5
Through Dec. 17th
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes with one 15-minute intermission
The Curran Theatre
445 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA
Tickets range from $39 – $175
For tickets, call (415) 358-1220 or visit www.sfcurran.com

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