Reviewed by George Basler
Filled with catchy up-tempo songs and heartfelt ballads, Bright Star is a musical that proudly wears its heart on its sleeve.
That emotion is on full display in a splendid production that opened this past weekend (Oct. 4-6) at the Ti-Ahwaga Performing Arts Center in Owego and will run weekends through Oct. 20. In the hands of a hugely talented cast, made up mostly of young performers, the musical is an unapologetically tender and hopeful look at the capacity to forgive and triumph over the misfortunes and sorrows that life throws in your path.
The show is the work of comedian/musician Steve Martin and singer/songwriter Edie Brickell who collaborated on the music, book and story. (Brickell gets solo credit for the lyrics). When Bright Star opened on Broadway in 2016, it earned mostly positive reviews and received a Grammy nomination for its original cast album. Even so, it had only a short run on the Great White Way, overwhelmed by the Hamilton juggernaut that dominated the theater scene that season.
But, if the Ti-Ahwaga production is any indication, the musical seems destined to have a long life in regional and community theaters where its intimacy and gentle spirit will count as virtues.
The Ti-Ahwaga cast members certainly do themselves proud. Anchored by a soaring performance by K Morgan Prikazsky as the main character, they make the show an engaging delight. The acting and singing are uniformly strong, the direction by James Osborne is skillful and precise, the set design by Paul Sanna is masterful and the choreography by Jessica Hyland and Kathy Bartlette energetically mixes a square dance feeling with traditional Broadway.
Topping it off is a rocking six-person ensemble, conducted by Sunny DeWitt, that provides a solid accompaniment as it performs a rousing score that leans heavily on bluegrass and Americana music.
The musical takes place in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina in 1945-46 and 22 years earlier. It features two stories that, at first, seem unconnected.
One centers on a feisty backwoods girl, Alice Murphy (Prikazsky), who longs to escape her small town and falls in love with the mayor’s son (Vito Longo). An unplanned pregnancy, and the reaction of their families, derails the lovers’ plans.
The second story focuses on Billy Crane (Ryan Canavan), a young, returning World War II veteran who aspires to be a great writer. In pursuit of this goal, Billy leaves his hometown and moves to Asheville, N.C., in hopes of having his work published by a prestigious literary journal. The publication is edited by Alice, now in her 40s and still longing to find the son taken from her at birth.
The two stories come together in show’s final scenes in a way that features a large emotional payoff.
To be honest, Bright Star barely skirts descending into sentimentality. One critic went so far as to call it an example of “over-earnest nostalgia.” While I disagree, there’s no denying the fact that audience members must accept plot twists that require more than a little bit of willing disbelief.
Two things save the show: Martin and Brickell’s first-rate score and their respect for their down-home characters. The musical, even with its shortcomings, leaves a warm glow and never descends into hokum.
One strong point of the Ti-Ahwaga production is how the songs flow seamlessly from the dialogue. This is crucial because the songs — as much as the dialogue – move the plot forward.
As Alice, Prikazsky (who is fresh out of SUNY Fredonia’s musical theater program) gives a glowing performance. Especially impressive is her ability to transition from the feisty teenage Alice to the more withdrawn older Alice. Her performance of “At Long Last,” the show’s big ballad, makes the song an anthem to survival and triumph.
The rest of the cast is strong as well. Canavan plays Billy’s openness and lack of guile extremely well, never making the sincerity of the character cloying. He also delivers the musical’s title number, “Bright Star,” in fine fashion.
Longo brings a rough-hewn charm to the nuanced role of Jimmy Ray, the mayor’s son and Alice’s love interest. He’s especially forceful in playing the character’s more emotionally conflicted moments. His big number, “Heartbreaker,” carries real weight as does his duet with Prikazsky, “I Had a Vision.”
Annie Fabiano plays Billy’s hometown girlfriend with a skillful mixture of longing and spunk. She has one of the best songs in the show, the brightly hummable “Asheville,” which she performs beautifully.
Anne Glasgow and Isaac Weber bring solid comic relief to their roles as Alice’s assistants at the literary magazine. Their big song in the second act — a barroom number, “Another Round,” in which they become giddily loaded on a bit too much “joy juice” — nearly stops the show.
Special mention goes to Howard Scot, who has the tough job of playing the unappealing role of the Jimmy Ray’s father. Scot bring a terrifying sense of strength and desperation to a role that is basically a cardboard villain.
In the end, Bright Star is a show that asks audience members to put their cynicism and skepticism on hold to bask in optimism and brightness. If you’re willing to do so, the show won’t disappoint. The Ti-Ahwaga Community Players are starting their 61st season on a strong note.
IF YOU GO: Bright Star will be performed at the Ti-Ahwaga Performing Arts Center, 42 Delphine St., Owego, through Oct. 20. Friday and Saturday performances are at 8 p.m.; Sunday matinees are at 2 p.m. Tickets are $27 ($22 for students under 18 with an ID and seniors 60 and older). Purchase tickets online at www.tiahwaga.com or call 687-2130.