In the 35 seasons since Barbara and Lawrence Stein founded Actors’ Playhouse, the company has established its identity as a place where big musicals like the just-opened “Bright Star” get produced.
Sure, with artistic director David Arisco at the helm, Actors’ Playhouse has also done plays, more intimate musicals and the occasional world premiere at the handsomely renovated Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables, the company’s home since 1995. But large-scale musicals like “Bright Star” are a key reason Actors’ loyal audiences keep coming back to Miracle Mile.
Many of those musicals have familiar titles — think “Evita,” “Man of La Mancha,” “La Cage aux Folles,” “The Pajama Game.” But “Bright Star,” overshadowed by the towering achievement of “Hamilton” at the 2016 Tony Awards, is a lesser-known, underappreciated show.
It shouldn’t be.
As staged by Arisco and with the inextricable contributions of choreographer Sarah Crane and musical director Eric Alsford, “Bright Star” is as good as Actors’ Playhouse musicals get — which is really good.
With a story and music by actor-comedian Steve Martin (who also wrote the book) and singer-songwriter by Edie Brickell (the show’s lyricist), “Bright Star” is propelled by a sweeping, engaging story that hops back and forth in time between 1945-46 and 1923-24.
The bluegrass-roots-folk score has several knockout numbers, and it’s gloriously played by Alsford and seven other costumed, onstage musicians.
The cast is overflowing with accomplished musical theater performers, led by dynamo Kimberly Doreen Burns. As Alice Murphy, a North Carolina woman whose star-crossed life has enough content for several soap operas, the petite Burns has the looks of an ingenue, a powerhouse belt that Ethel Merman might have envied and the steely assurance of a Broadway star.
As lyricist Ira Gershwin mused in “I Got Rhythm,” who could ask for anything more?
Though a major plot point in “Bright Star” is based on an unfathomably awful real-life event, the story is the invention of Martin and Brickell. Because of Martin’s stellar career in comedy, many come to the show expecting to laugh a lot. That doesn’t happen, though there are funny grace notes here and there, and the dynamic duo of Conor Walton as snippy editor Daryl Ames and Charity Van Tassel as his on-the-prowl coworker Lucy Grant are masterful at spinning comedy gold.
Instead, a story set long ago in the Blue Ridge Mountains explores how we navigate a path through life, unexpected joys and devastating sorrows, the power of love and forgiveness.
For Alice, who has become the accomplished editor of the Asheville Southern Journal by the mid-1940s, the flashback scenes from the early 1920s accrue to reveal a buoyant 16-year-old determined to claim the mayor’s son Jimmy Ray (Alex Jorth) as her own true love. A baby is born, then ripped from Alice’s arms and taken away by Jimmy Ray’s iron-willed, dictatorial father Josiah (Jim Ballard), crushing the young lovers’ dreams.
Despite the show’s many trips back and forth in time, the storytelling in Actors’ “Bright Star” is clear and seamless. It’s impressive in Shaun Mitchell’s excellent sound design, Eric Nelson’s time-traveling lighting, Ellis Tillman’s myriad period costumes and Brandon Newton’s malleable set.
In the ‘40s, “Bright Star” focuses on aspiring writer Billy Cane (Teddy Warren), a small-town guy just back from his service in World War II. More than a little naïve and laser-focused on writing for the Asheville Southern Journal, Billy fails to notice that his grownup childhood friend, bookstore owner Margo Crawford (Alexandra Van Hasselt), is crazy about him. Eventually, career, romance and life get sorted out, and not just for Billy. That’s what traditional musicals do.
Arisco and New York-based choreographer Crane, who began her blossoming career at Actors’ Playhouse as a kid, use the ensemble and principal actors to move pieces of Newton’s set – which chillingly suggests a railroad bridge critical to the plot, rough-hewn cabins and more upscale locations – so that the show keeps flowing organically. Crane’s one big dance number, set to “Another Round,” is ‘40s-infused and fabulous as it showcases Van Tassel’s funny, sultry Lucy.
This “Bright Star” is full of A-game performances from South Florida actors and out-of-towners alike. Along with the show itself, that’s one of the great delights waiting to be discovered on the Miracle Theatre’s mainstage.
Warren, for instance, moved to the area from New York less than two years ago and with his Actors’ Playhouse debut as Billy convincingly makes the case that another skilled musical theater leading man has come to town. Van Hasselt, a versatile dancer-singer-actor in so many South Florida shows, ascends to a new level as the lovelorn Margo.
Jorth, an actor-choreographer best known here for his work in big musicals, gets to play a romantic lead as Jimmy Ray. Walton is deadpan and hilarious as Daryl. Ballard, a Carbonell Award-winning actor who is married to Burns and now living in New York, makes Mayor Dobbs the quintessential villain.
Barry Tarallo as Billy’s warm-hearted father (and the show’s gifted mandolin player), Peter McClung as Alice’s demanding father, Paulette Oliva as her peace-making mother, and violinist/ensemble member Margaret Dudasik, whose playing helps convey the emotional tenor of so many moments, all do their parts in elevating the performance level of the production.
So do the other ensemble members: Sofi Duemichen, Brent D. Kuenning, Hugo E. Moreno, Sam Sherwood, Alexander Blanco, Keeley Anne McCormick, Alexis Semevolos-Velazquez and Paul Tuaty.
Burns is, of course, the brightest of the show’s stars. She’s as convincing as a 38-year-old sophisticate in a curve-hugging red suit as she is when she’s playing 16-year-old Alice in a light summer dress, a hat atop her long curls.
She sets up and kicks off the show with a rousing “If You Knew My Story.” With the ensemble’s women, she sings a tender song to her unborn baby, a beautifully angelic number reminiscent of the music in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?.” Thrillingly, she delivers a show-stopping “So Familiar/At Long Last” as “Bright Star” is about to wrap up.
Sometimes, all the elements come together to transform a production of a lesser-known work into something quite special. Such is the case with Actors’ Playhouse’s “Bright Star.”
WHAT: “Bright Star” by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell
WHERE: Actors Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables
WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday, 3 p.m. on Sunday, through April 16
COST: $40 to $125 (seniors 65 and over get 10 percent off weekdays only; students 25 and under with valid student ID pay $15 for a rush ticket available 15 minutes before a weekday performance)
INFO: 305-444-9293 or actorsplayhouse.org
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