“Pretty” is a word that comes to mind all through an encounter with “Bright Star,” the, well, very pretty new musical by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell. Everything about the show is pretty: pretty songs, pretty voices, pretty setting, pretty people.
In musical theater land these days, you can do a lot worse than pretty. So Martin and Brickell’s tuneful bluegrass period production, impeccably staged by director Walter Bobbie and featuring a strong central performance by Carmen Cusack, is the kind of easy-listenin’, easy-on-the-eyes entertainment that leaves you with that feeling of, you know, moderate satisfaction. It causes absolutely no pain. But it doesn’t quite light up the evening sky, either.
Making a stop in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater before a scheduled February start of Broadway performances, “Bright Star” abounds with affection for an America of pure-hearted aspiration and homespun values, a place where stick-to-itiveness and talent always win out over malice and narrow-mindedness. A darker spirit is permitted to infiltrate the proceedings, but as “Bright Star” asserts in a soothing, old-fashioned way, it’s no match for, say, the warmth of a mother’s heart.
If sentimentality of this sort is the palliative you crave, then “Bright Star” will strike you as an apt prescription. The musical presents an admirable unity of geography and musical style: the banjos, guitars and violins picking out Martin and Brickell’s score sound as if they could echo off the sides of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where the musical is set.
Seesawing between the North Carolina of 1923 and 1945-1946, the show unfolds around the experiences of two characters, both with high literary ambitions: Cusack’s Alice Murphy, the demanding editor of a fictionalized magazine, the Asheville Southern Journal, and Billy Cane (A.J. Shively), a country boy back from World War II who dreams of having his stories published in Murphy’s prestigious periodical. Through a series of flashbacks, we are provided a detailed rationale for Alice’s coldness, in a story of the cruel way in which her teenage love affair with Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Paul Alexander Nolan) was thwarted by her father (Stephen Lee Anderson), and his wealthier one (Michael Mulheren). And in the show’s most harrowing moment, it reveals the horrible manner in which one of the parents dispenses with the product of their passion.
You can see the resolution of this woodsy tale coming all the way from the banks of the Potomac. The music, played by an onstage bluegrass band conducted by Rob Berman, is predictably filled, too, with lush chords and toe-tapping liveliness; so determined is the creative team to integrate songs into story that through a longish first act, “Bright Star” barely acknowledges the audience’s need to applaud at the end of a number. Brickell has a habit here of forcing a lyric so that a musical line falls oddly on the ear, but led by Cusack and Shively, the entire cast applies a pleasing suppleness to an array of country ballads and dance melodies by her and Martin.
Bobbie, set designer Eugene Lee and choreographer Josh Rhodes do everything in their power to propel “Bright Star” briskly forward. The band, housed in a see-through wood cabin on wheels, is spun this way and that across the Eisenhower stage; ingeniously, the structure is used both as a domicile and dance platform, the actors rushing in and spilling out of it at regular intervals. Lee’s bucolic backdrops, Jane Greenwood’s costumes and Japhy Weideman’s stirring lighting design immerse “Bright Star” in a cheerily idealized landscape, the kind that reinforces the fable-like nature of the show. (Brickell has said, though, that the inspiration for the story arose from a newspaper article she came across.)
Only occasionally do the characters seem much more than earnest archetypes in a fairly familiar, melodramatic story. Even so, a few of the actors manage to elevate the material, particularly Cusack, so memorable at the Kennedy Center in 2010 as Nellie Forbush in the touring production of Lincoln Center Theater’s “South Pacific.” Playing Alice both as a willful teen and a more mature woman of letters, she’s an engaging touchstone figure, with a creamy vocal authority. Shively, Nolan and Hannah Elless, the last portraying the sweet home-town girl who’s meant for Billy, offer robust turns in their all-American roles. In a variety of supporting parts, such reliable performers as Mulheren, Anderson, Jeff Blumenkrantz, Emily Padgett, Dee Hoty and Stephen Bogardus are all agreeably polished, too.
The gentle ambiance and demure emotions of “Bright Star” are a certain antidote to the overheated manipulativeness of so many contemporary musicals. But being the prettiest one on the block, it seems, only gets a show so far.
“Bright Star,” music by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, book by Martin, lyrics by Brickell. Directed by Walter Bobbie. Choreography, Josh Rhodes; sets, Eugene Lee; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Japhy Weideman; sound, Nevin Steinberg; orchestrations, August Eriksmoen. With Max Chernin, Sarah Jane Shanks, Sandra DeNise, William Youmans, Michael X. Martin. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Tickets, $45-$175. Through Jan. 10 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Visit kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600.