The musical Bright Star deserved a better fate than its 109 performance Broadway run in spring of 2016. Though nominated for five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and minting leading lady Carmen Cusack as a fresh new star in her Broadway debut, the show failed to find an audience. Perhaps its bluegrass-tuned score was not what Broadway audiences were shopping for, or its homey sweet story of love that suffers but ultimately triumphs over small minds and avarice was found lacking in irony and digital age sensibilities. A national tour failed to find a berth in the Twin Cities. Thankfully, Lyric Arts Main Street Stage, in Anoka, has made Bright Star its 2019-2020 season opener, offering a heartfelt, beautifully sung production that does full justice to the show's many shining qualities.
The focus on characters and narrative is given a tremendous boost by Scott Ford's effective direction, as he adroitly guides the narrative through transitions between time periods and bridging moods from tenderness to despair to jubilation. Ford's accomplishment is bolstered by Elise Santa's outstanding music direction, critical to this show in which the music is such a vital component, heightening the emotions felt by its characters as surely as an operatic score.
The production has been cast wonderfully, with Katie Strom Rozanas a standout as Alice Murphy. Rozanas has a gorgeous, full voice that greets us from the very start of Bright Star, enjoining us to understand the strain she has been through ("If You Knew My Story"). She continues to soar in the melancholic "Way Back in the Day," to express selfless love in "I Can't Wait," frenzied anguish in "Please, Don't Take Him," resolute hope in "Sun's Gonna Shine," and, paired with Chris Paulson as Jimmy Ray, gives deeply moving voice to her sorrows in "I Had a Vision." She manages to create believable depictions of Alice as a feisty 16-year-old and as a high-powered professional whose losses in love are concealed beneath her caustic wit.
Chris Paulson ably conveys an emotional range in his depiction of a young man who transcends the callow years of his youth, and sings beautifully, both as a care-free boy ("Whoa, Mama"), engaging in gentle seduction ("What Could Be Better"), revealing his tender nature ("I Can't Wait"), and crashing beneath the weight of unbearable loss ("Heartbreaker"). As Billy, Cam Pederson brings a charming boyishness, along with another strong voice, to his performance, leading the rousing title song and dancing up a storm in the comical "Another Round," showing special flair in executing Heidi Spesard-Noble's appropriately rustic choreography.
The supporting roles are all cast superbly as well. As Margo, Maureen O'Malley captures the mix of eternal hope and frustration over Billy's preoccupation with his writing life, pouring her heart—and lovely voice—into her rendition of "Asheville." Steve Ramirez is wonderfully sinister as Jimmy Ray's villainous father, injecting venom into "A Man's Gotta Do," while Robert Zalazar, as Billy's father, projects paternal pride and warmth, and movingly conveys the heartache of "She's Gone." Jan Joseph and Peter Aitchison bring the right notes to their portrayal's of Alice's mother and father, while Nykeigh Larson and Carl Swanson make a sharp pair as Alice's employees at the magazine, providing comic relief with precision timing. Those in smaller roles, along with the singing ensemble, all add to the high quality of this production.
Design credits are all of high caliber, with a lovely backdrop of the North Carolina hills in various shades of blue, providing a sense of environmental unity across the time frames and different locations. Katie Phillips has designed simple sets that place the ten-member band on a wood frame platform, framed in lateral wood slats lit from behind (Shannon Elliott, lighting designer), with blue lights that, along with the backdrop, give a feeling of a bygone era to the entire production.
Lyric Arts Main Street Stage has given the Twin Cities the gift of our region's first look at this fine musical that deserves recognition and audiences. They have bestowed upon Bright Star, a production that works in every way, bringing out all that is good and lovely and memorable in Martin and Brickell's work. As for the long drive from parts of the metro to Anoka, at least the ride home should go quickly, as you will likely be occupied whistling the catchy melodies of its well-crafted score.