The Blue Ridge Mountains have much to tell us, and their rich history serves as the inspiration for Bright Star, written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell. The musical makes its Western North Carolina debut at Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre, running through Sunday, June 16.
It’s 1923 in the small Southern town of Zebulon. A romance blossoms when spirited Alice Murphy (played by Chelsey Lee Mirheli) falls for the handsome Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Jason Watson). Afraid of town gossip, Alice is taken to a secret cabin in the woods to birth their child out of wedlock. But Jimmy Ray’s cruel father, Mayor Dobbs (Timothy Wilds), will stop at nothing to rid his family of such disgrace. He tears the baby from Alice’s arms, stuffs it in a handbag and boards a train in the night.
Famed actor Martin (Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Parenthood, Father of the Bride) has been a longtime supporter of this region’s music (so much so that he’s played banjo and recorded with local outfit Steep Canyon Rangers). His submersion into Appalachian culture is reflected in Bright Star. The musical had a short run on Broadway in 2016 but managed to garner several Tony nominations. While Martin and singer-songwriter Brickell’s passion is evident, this is not the most authentic representation of life in North Carolina. Incorporating a deeply rooted Southern writer would have made the journey more rewarding. Most of the characters are not well sculpted, and although the script certainly has its moments, it is largely predictable. However, the music here is truly masterful and becomes a prominent storytelling device.
The production starts off with a powerful burst of potential. An eerie light finds Mirheli at the side of the stage, and she sings one of the show’s best songs, “If You Knew My Story.” She’s positively unforgettable throughout.
With such an amazing voice, it’s no wonder that Mirheli sang backup for Dolly Parton. Equally impressive is her ability to morph in flashbacks from a young teenager to an adult editor of The Asheville Southern Journal.
It’s at that newspaper that Alice meets Billy Cane (Maximilian Koger), a promising new writer who has just returned from World War II. Koger’s vocals are also nice, and we’re able to feel an eagerness that pushes his character on a quest to fulfill his dreams.
Amanda Sayles helms a wonderfully energetic cast with her smooth, fast-paced direction. There are times, though, when the drama just doesn’t connect as strongly as it should. Actors do not have time to fully feel emotion before a song starts, most notably when Billy visits his mother’s grave and when Alice finds out what actually happened to her baby. Thankfully, Mirheli blends the necessary emotions into the beginning of her songs.
With a thumping beat, the terrific live band is reason enough to see Bright Star. The musicians remain omnipresent, staged on a cabin porch below impeccably constructed railroad tracks by set designer Jeff Webber. This show definitely has rhythm, and, partnered with the choreography by Anthony Romeo, we are launched into the spirit of Southern music.
WHAT: Bright Star
WHERE: SART, 44 College St., Mars Hill, sartplays.com
WHEN: Through Sunday, June 16. Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. $18-$34