Mere minutes into “Bright Star,” the audience is treated to the arrival home of a war veteran, the death of a beloved parent, and a journey to the big city in order to find one’s way as an aspiring author. Edie Brickell and Steve Martin’s mid-twentieth century, Appalachian-set musical does not waste much time. In fact, it absolutely depends on the audience’s sentimental streak for bluegrass and family tragedy, because without that love, the show’s lack of character stakes and psychological complexity would grate on even the most generous viewer. Boho Theatre’s energetic production has nice toe-tapping moments, but some intense design choices and director Ericka Mac’s push for big acting choices only emphasize the lack of complexity in Martin and Brickell’s story and music.
Billy Cane (Jeff Pierpoint) is the aforementioned soldier returning from war to his small North Carolina town. After learning of his mother’s death, he leaves home and his childhood sweetheart Margo (Kiersten Frumkin) for Asheville, where he courts the patronage of no-nonsense editor Alice Murphy (Missy Wise), who also grew up in a small North Carolina hamlet. Her remembrances begin to wind their way into the narrative, including her teenage courtship with her town’s golden boy Jimmy Ray (Josiah Robinson), and the nefarious loss of her child. Meanwhile, Billy tries to publish his stories, while Margo worries he will never return her growing affections. One of these stories obviously has much more dramatic pull, and the balance never quite evens out between following Billy or following Alice.
Picture Brickell’s story as a bluegrass Greek tragedy, and Martin’s book as an oddly flavorless execution of the same. Anytime conflict can arise between characters, scenes are cut short, or sacrificed for another musical number. When Billy is tempted by a big city girl, barely even a peck on the lip happens before he abandons the dance hall. While Jimmy Ray vows never to tell Alice what actually happened to their newborn child, fast forward to twenty-some years later, and he quite readily admits the truth.
The lightness on display would be more acceptable if Martin and Brickell’s music felt more authentic. Both clearly harbor a deep love for the banjo, fiddle, bass, and guitar. But the music stays solidly in musical theatre styling, prettied up and melodically simple, allowing Martin’s simplistic lyrics to jar the ear at least three times a tune. The more mournful, off-kilter harmonies and dark subject matter of Appalachian music stays offstage, and it hurts the grand scale of the doubled narrative being explored. Julie B. Nichols brings out what richness she can in her music direction, but there is something lacking to the score.
All in all, the performances elevate the material. Mac does excellent work with Wise, in particular. While the book and music might not capture her character’s hard life, her performance always carries with it notes of sorrow and regret, and her chemistry with Robinson lights up the stage when the two are together. Pierpoint and Frumkin have a lot of fun as the more off-kilter pair, even if their characters come off as clueless a lot of the time. Overall, the singing is top-notch, though I would beg storefront theaters to stop using amplification in small spaces. It doesn’t always allow for much of a blend, something that’s pretty important to bluegrass.
Lauren M. Nichols’ set design smartly transforms from a shack to a rail car to a roadhouse to an office, and Robert S. Kuhn’s costumes evoke both the twenties and the forties easily. G. “Max” Maxin IV’s light design is vibrant, but the stage fog used to transition us into the past is more a hindrance than a help to allowing the lighting to change time and place.
“Bright Star” may not hit all its marks, but BoHo has leveraged its strengths in this production. The company’s next musical is “Big Fish,” and perhaps that show about tall tales and understanding the past might fair a little better.
DIE RATING: d8 — “Not Bad, not Great”
TEN WORD SUMMARY: A youngster finds fortune, while a woman explores her past.
Show: “Bright Star”
Company: BoHo Theatre
Venue: Greenhouse Theater Center (2257 N Lincoln Ave)