Beware of works of art in which a star is a metaphor. As a matter of fact, beware of anything in which a star is a metaphor. You can be sure that the beacon of light/hope springs eternal symbolism will be very obviously in play.
It certainly is in the new musical Bright Star at the Old Globe Theatre, written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell and directed by Walter Bobbie. The Globe’s 2014-15 season opener relates a formulaic story that possesses its darker overtones, but it is by and large a sugary couple of hours of secrets predictably revealed, all set to Americana-flavored music.
Two stories, unfolding in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains in the wake of World War II, converge in Bright Star. Billy Cane (A.J. Shively), fresh faced and fresh out of the service, is home again and wants nothing more than to become a famous writer. This leads him to the big city – Raleigh – and to uptight, bespectacled editor Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack), who oversees a prestigious literary magazine, the Asheville Southern Journal. But there’s another side to Alice: her past, when as a young girl she fell in love with Jimmy Ray Dobbs (like Billy Cane, another name that sounds right out of NASCAR), had a baby by him and had it yanked away from her by Jimmy Ray’s mayor pappy (Wayne Duvall) for the sake of propriety and political expediency. The events of Billy’s dream-seeking and Alice’s tortured young womanhood are paralleled in words and song, and come together in a feel-good resolution that will take no one by surprise.
Bright Star’s staging, with the talented musicians housed in a see-through cabin that’s whirled around the stage to make way for set pieces as needed, is thoroughly imaginative, and the ensemble of players is top-flight. Yet with a couple of exceptions the songs’ lyrics are shallow and too literal, simply extensions set to music of what each character might say if Bright Star was a play and not a musical.
At the risk of employing that aforementioned star metaphor, Cusack shines brightly as Alice, and her and Jimmy Ray’s (Wayne Alan Wilcox) aching duet “I Had A Vision” does strike a genuine emotional chord in a show that needs many more of them.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.