Martin & Brickell Celebrate Blue Grass & Women’s Rights
by Lynne Stevens
The musical “Bright Star,” a bittersweet Romeo and Juliet story, shows “grown-ups” thwarting young lovers. Country music intensifies the love story as we flash back and forth between 1923 and 1946.
Director Marilyn Langbehn takes us to three small towns in North Carolina. Sensitive Scenic Designer Kuo-Hao Lo provides an impressive earth-toned bridge and a rustic, gray porch for the orchestra. Musicians in blue overalls play piano, drums, guitars, banjo, fiddle, and upright bass. Their exuberant blue grass tunes heighten the emotional scenes.
Charming golden, drop down lights illuminate a country dance, thanks to Lighting Designer Courtney Johnson. We catch our breath, as a soft light reveals self-righteous Mayor Dobbs (Paul Plain) throwing a mysterious valise from a train.
It’s 1946, and starry-eyed Billy Cane (enthusiastic Lucas Kiehn-Thilman) returns from WWII. Daddy Cane (tender Keith Jefferds) greets Billy with news of Mom’s death. Together, father and son sing the touching “She’s Gone.”
In this rural setting, newspaper editor Alice Murphy (convincing Danielle DeBow) confides in us. She tenderly sings “If You Knew My Story”—like the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” But Alice keeps rejecting Billy’s stories—until she finally accepts one. She pays the young veteran $10 for his contribution to the Asheville Southern Journal.
Alice advises Billy: “You need to find a sweeping tale of pain and redemption.” When Billy shares the good news with Margo (charming Alexa Haynes), I’m thinking this young fella is clueless and this couple has no hope.
At the Journal, Alice’s two comical helpers—Lucy (Tosca Maltzman) and Daryl (Jordan Smith)—joke with wry humor. When Lucy asks Daryl if he thinks a man is attractive, Daryl cannot tell. Lucy raises an eyebrow: it’s dangerous to be gay in those days.
Flashing back to 1923, the young Alice tells Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Michael Scott Wells) she is pregnant. When they insist on marrying, Mayor Dobbs and Daddy Murphy (Russ Whismore) say “No!”
Fearing gossip, Alice’s parents hide her in a cabin in the woods. The families supposedly whisk the baby away for adoption, but we know trouble is brewing in 20s backwoods America. True emotions must be buried and hidden.
Mama Murphy (compassionate Shay Oglesby-Smith) has no power as a “mere” woman. She lends her lovely voice to “Please, Don’t Take Him,” singing with Alice. Women’s control over their own bodies is always in question!
If you are thinking this is no play for young people, think again. I was pleased to see many young people and families with children enjoying the show.
When Jimmy Ray believes the baby was thrown in the river, he sings the plaintive “Heartbreaker.” This Romeo and Juliet seem doomed. At this point I was rummaging my pockets for a tissue.
After this harsh scene, we need a lift—so, we slip seamlessly into the 40s with “Another Round.” The folksy musicians and sprightly dancing provide the perfect toe-tapping remedy.
Years later, grown-up Alice and Jimmy have a melancholy reunion. And lots more startling surprises unfold for everyone—touching our hearts. All along, the musicians capture each turn of emotion, delightfully. We walk out happy with hope and a spring in our step.
“Bright Star” –by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, directed by Marilyn Langbehn, at Contra Costa Civic Theatre, El Cerrito, California, through Sunday, October 27, 2019. Info: ccct.org
Cast: Danielle DeBow, Alexa Haynes, Keith Jefferds, Lucas Kiehn-Thilman, Paul Plan, Mick Renner Michael Scott Wells, Shay Oglesby-Smith, and Russ Whismore.
Banner photo: Danielle DeBow & Lucas Kiehn-Thilman.