Friday, September 21, 2018

Phoenix Theatre sets sail on the mainstream with "Bright Star"

Small-town young folks Alice and Jimmy Ray bond over an icebox
To open the 2018-19 season, the first in its four decades as an alternative theatrical mainstay without Bryan Fonseca at the helm, Phoenix Theatre has made the canny choice of mounting a show with name recognition and an explicitly old-fashioned approach to storytelling.

It's also a musical — a genre that has yielded big hits in the Phoenix's recent history. Thursday's preview performance of "Bright Star" on the Russell Stage at the company's expensive new home, 705 N. Illinois St., played to a full house, and tonight's show is a sellout.

Suzanne Fleenor, a Phoenix founding member, directs the show. She draws from the large cast a full measure of commitment and  likability to this "very sincere, non-cynical, non-ironic show," in the words of co-creator Steve Martin, who collaborated with Edie Brickell. The working partners fashioned a story out of a bizarre incident at the turn of the 20th century, when an infant in a valise was found abandoned near a Missouri railroad track. Who discarded the baby and why was never known.

Unwilling grandfather prepares to toss the valise from a train.
From that event, Martin and Brickell came up with a story incorporating a lovely coincidence that  resolves the mystery of a fictional young World War II veteran's origins. Martin was at pains to make clear to Stephen Colbert in a TV interview the distinction between the event that inspired the show and the story that the co-creators came up with on their own. It's impossible to get at what generated "Bright Star" while being scrupulous about spoiler alerts, so I won't try.

But I will honor the suspense that the story builds up about the veteran, Billy Cane, who nurses post-war literary ambitions, and the lit-mag editor, Alice Murphy, who encourages him with a good dose of tough love.  The North Carolina setting provides the opportunity to link to the great era of Southern literature, and Martin (I suspect) is responsible for the name-dropping nudges — Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, and others.

It's peculiar that Cane tries to impress Murphy with what purports to be a letter of endorsement from Thomas Wolfe: Would a literary ephebe within hollering distance of Asheville not know that Wolfe died seven years before the 1945 setting? Alternatively, would he plausibly expect to fool the head of a prestigious regional literary journal?  Murphy quickly sets him straight. (Martin's fascination with Wolfe also shows up in the set piece of an angel gravestone in the first scene, calling attention to the death while Billy was abroad of the woman who raised him along with Daddy Cane. Anyone not immediately reminded of "Look Homeward, Angel" has some catching up to do.)

I attribute the literary allusions to Martin because of the comedian's record of having extensive knowledge of literary culture. That brings up a more important point: It seems the show's book is chiefly the work of Martin, with the songs co-written, generally to Martin's tunes and Brickell's lyrics. The result, while mostly unified, tilts the dialogue toward wittiness and the song texts toward plainness. Brickell displays an almost monosyllabic naturalness in her lyrics that makes Oscar Hammerstein II look sophisticated in comparison.

The creative seams in "Bright Star" show, in other words. The overall feeling of secrets and prejudices yielding to the power of love is a constant, however, underscored in abundance by  the  songs. The production embraces the show's sincerity. Even the minor characters are vividly portrayed. Fleenor, perhaps encouraged by the original script, has allowed some character responses to be exaggerated, evoking the successful, time-tested formula of Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre. With or without hyperbole, the performances place a premium on instant communication.
One of the staging triumphs is a party scene celebrating strong drink.

There are of course too many songs. The first act in particular seems cluttered with them. Fortunately, the bluegrass style is adroitly established and sustained by a nine-piece band under the direction of Brent E. Marty, placed directly behind Rob Koharchik's evocative set. As a choral ensemble, the cast is stunning. We certainly hear from it often.

There is much admirably coordinated choreography, designed by Carol Worcel. Production numbers are so common that a duet between proper father and wayward son Dobbs (played by Charles Goad and Patrick Clements, respectively) stands out as a welcome relief in the first act. In the second, so do Clements' anguished solo as a man paying dearly for a youthful indiscretion and a show-stopping showcase for Molly Garner as the lit-mag editor with a heart-rending past. I liked the balance of song and story-telling as the show moved toward its conclusion, with all the hoped-for romantic knots finally tied up in the tradition of comic opera and musical comedy alike.
Rousing finale: Everything comes out all right at the end.

So pleased do they seem to be about working together that Martin and Brickell lose emphasis on making their presentation anywhere near as lean as the story's essence. Fleenor has followed their lead with gusto, and that's all to the good: "Bright Star" doesn't allow for anything half-hearted. There are a few wonderful coups de theatre, especially in the second act. When the old valise is brought out of storage at the Cane home, Alice's double take of recognition was spine-chilling. And Daddy Cane's revisiting the time he found the abandoned satchel and its contents while hunting frogs at night, enhanced by some of Laura Glover's expert lighting, could hardly have had more resonance.

"Bright Star," whose title is certainly an allusion to John Keats' famous sonnet, has the same penetrating yearning for steadfastness as the poem. Through song, dance, comedy, and pathos, the Phoenix show addresses everyone's desire for an identity and purpose worth clinging to, and for the promise of the kind of settledness and stability that sorts out all the negatives and neutralizes them.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

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