Doing a brand new musical in 2015 is tricky. The musical theatre relies on existing, popular song books (Motown, Beautiful), classic revivals (Gigi), hit movies (Once or Kinky Boots) and such seemingly more so than ever. For every Fun Home there is a 100 Matildas and West Side Stories. Not that there is anything wrong with that (especially when done well, as was the case with most productions listed above) but it does make a musical fan want to cheer on any original that we get thrown our way.
And Bright Star, which Kennedy Center is hosting in its pre-Broadway run through January 10, not only comes with that but also with quite the pedigree: Steve Martin and Edie Brickell wrote it (the first musical either of them co-authored), Walter Bobbie (Tony winner for Chicago) directed it, and Paul Simon (Brickell’s husband) was there to cheer it on on opening night, defacto giving it his Godfather-of-Pop blessing.
Billed as “wholly original new musical inspired by an astonishing true event”, it is meant to celebrate the Great American Songbook, old-fashioned story telling and a few other All American things in between (banjos and all) that Martin and Brickell bonded over.
And you DO want it to work. If there was ever a team to cheer on from the sidelines, this is it.
Not that there aren’t moments to enjoy: the choreography is tight and fun, and often the dancers earn more applause than the singers, and certain youthful moments in the first act (especially featuring the flirty banter between Carmen Cusack’s Alice and her high school sweetheart Jimmy) snap, crackle and pop with the kind of energy you hope the story would sustain.
And the commitment from the performers does carry the material further than it naturally could (since the “wholly original” and “astonishing true event” descriptions used in billing the show turn out to be not quite true). But still, in the end, you don’t want to just be OK with this play, you want to LOVE IT. And sadly, Bright Star doesn’t earn that kind of all caps devotion, which is, in some ways even more of a disappointment than if it was a total crash-and-burn fiasco. With the kind of celebrity name backing involved here, one has to ask: why was THIS the story they felt Broadway needed to be told? Why were THESE songs the songs they felt the Broadway was missing?
And there is no good answer.