By Lauren Van Hemert
Set in North Carolina and steeped in Dixie lore, University Theatre’s production of Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s musical Bright Star is a fine example of how conscious casting and decisive staging, along with strong performances, can make a show.
Martin and Brickell created the show after the release of their 2013 album Love Has Come For You. The show premiered in San Diego in 2014 and just over a year later opened on Broadway.
Billy Cane is a soldier from Hayes Creek, NC who’s returning home after serving in World War II. An aspiring writer, he sets his sights on Asheville to pursue his dream of getting published in the Asheville Southern Journal. The magazine’s editor, Alice Murphy, takes Billy under her wing and mentors him. But in a case where the truth may be stranger than fiction, and unbeknownst to Billy himself, his story might be more interesting than the ones he’s penned. And it’s that backstory that is at the heart of Bright Star.
I’m going to be deliberately vague in my plot summary because frankly if you don’t already know the story, it might be best to go into this show blindly (as I did) to fully appreciate its array of gut-wrenching moments. And those moments are masterfully imagined here by director Rachel Klem. Klem’s perceptive restructuring of the show adds some much-needed dimension and depth to what otherwise might be just a mediocre melodrama.
Benaiah Barnes plays Billy, the gentle, young writer who “needs to find his voice.” Barnes himself seems to have found his own voice since his show-stopping performance as Sweaty Eddie in Raleigh Little Theatre’s production of Sister Act last year. Here he draws from his innate boyish charm and wheelhouse of raw emotions to deliver a character who is unaffected and credible. Another standout is Chris Inhulsen (Young Jimmy Ray), fresh off his portrayal as Huckleberry Finn in Temple Theatre’s production of Big River last March. Bright Star showcases Inhulsen’s triple threat capabilities. And to Inhulsen’s young Jimmy Ray is a feisty Aysia Slade as young Alice Murphy. It’s evident these talented young performers are feeding off the warmth and breadth of experience afforded to them by their older counterparts, including John McLlwee, Daryl Ray Carliles, and Danny Norris. But it is Tina Morris-Anderson as Alice who lures the audience into this tall tale most persuasively. Her powerhouse vocals and dynamism are consistent throughout and her portrayal of Alice is remarkably strong.
The strength of Bright Star is its music, as parts of the book, particularly the ending, feel contrived. Audiences here will also relish the references to familiar locales and landmarks.
But perhaps what is most notable about the University Theatre production is that unlike its Broadway predecessor, this one features a diverse cast, which frankly, ups the ante and changes the narrative. The commitment to present the story in a way that is reflective and inclusive rather than exclusive makes the material far more interesting a meaningful, a delightful diversion that just might make Bright Star the feel-good show of the summer.
Bright Star runs through Sunday at the Titmus Theatre and is part of University Theatre’s TheatreFEST. For more information visit: https://theatre.arts.ncsu.edu/2018-19-season/bright-star/.