Theater review: ‘Bright Star’ at SART

SOUTHERN CHARM: The cast of 'Bright Star,' making its Western North Carolina debut, is ready to entertain with song and story. Photo by Ryan Phillips

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

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About Kai Elijah Hamilton
Kai Elijah Hamilton was born and raised in Western North Carolina. A poet, screenwriter and playwright, he is also a published film and theater critic. Hamilton is a creative individual with a wide range of talents and interests. He is an Award Winning Actor (Tom in "The Glass Menagerie") and Director ("A Raisin In The Sun"). He previously served as Artistic Director at Hendersonville Little Theatre and has a B.A. in theater and film from Western Carolina University. In 2016, Hamilton's play "The Sleepwalker" won a spot in the first annual Asheville National 10-Minute Play Festival by NYS3. His play "Blackberry Winter" was a finalist in the elite Strawberry One-Act Festival in NYC winning Best Short Film/Video Diary. Hamilton is also the author of the full-length southern-gothic play "Dry Weather Wind" which has been called "Important. Relevant to the issues in today's time, and beautifully written..."

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2 thoughts on “Theater review: ‘Bright Star’ at SART

  1. Gary James

    I’m so glad you didn’t give ANYMORE away. We saw this in 2016 on Broadway and found the story telling, the story and the music (which you did say is hypnotic) all a perfectly fine evening of musical theatre. We were swept away to another time, in another world and that’s what I want when I see live theatre. But, please, be careful when saying too much in a pre-show review. It’s one thing to mention plot points after the fact, but it doesn’t do the piece service to tell “too much” prior to the fact.

  2. Suzanne Goodman

    The opening night performance of Bright Star was outstanding! I found each of the actors so well-cast and talented, so many moments heartfelt and moving, other moments just plain fun! The pacing was terrific too. Honestly, I did not know what to expect of a SART production, as I am new to Asheville from the NY metro area, but now I know: I will be back! Bravo to the entire cast and to the director!

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