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Bright Star

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Steve Martin and Edie Brickell have carefully nurtured their musical Bright Star from its initial production at the Old Globe Theatre to its short Broadway run and, now, a national tour. The revised production playing at the Ahmanson boasts an enjoyable score, smart direction, and terrific performances. Unfortunately, the book remains problematic.

Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack) opens the show singing, “If you knew my story you’d have a hard time, believing me…” A pretty accurate summation of the problem. Not only does the plot veer into melodrama more appropriate to Way Down East than a 21st Century musical, but the improbable coincidences and inconsistencies pile up in a way that never completely allows you to lose yourself in the narrative.

Billy Cane (A.J. Shively) returns from fighting in WW II to find his mother has died. Billy’s dream is to become a great writer and his not-quite-girlfriend, Margo (Maddie Shea Baldwin) urges him to follow his heart. This leads Billy to Ashville and the office of Alice Murphy, who turns out to be a smart Southern editor with a tongue as caustic as Dorothy Parker.

Billy fast-talks his stories onto Alice’s desk by telling her that Thomas Wolfe liked them. It's a perfect example of one of those pesky inconsistencies. Alice knows that Wolfe is long dead and, as an aspiring North Carolina writer, Billy should know if the state’s most celebrated novelist had passed away.

The story then hurtles back in time to introduce a teenage Alice, a lively backwoods girl with too much intelligence to live quietly in the mountains. She and the mayor’s son, Jimmy Ray (Patrick Cummings), have fallen in love. But Alice is not “good enough” for Jimmy Ray and, when she finds herself pregnant, the reaction of both fathers is familiarly authoritarian.

The two stories connect by the end, though the audience is well ahead of the characters. This is not an automatic liability, viewers enjoy familiar tropes presented in a fresh manner. The freshening factor in Bright Star comes from the colorful bluegrass-flavored score. The music admirably conveys the fervency of the “I want” numbers and the sly off-handed charm of the falling-in-love songs, but it falls short of carrying the weight of the melodramatic requirements of the plot.

Walter Bobbie’s brisk and seamless direction accentuates the show’s strengths, while never allowing the forward momentum to slacken.  Eugene Lee’s mobile scenic design fills the Ahmanson without overwhelming what is essentially an intimate story.

Cusack’s Tony-nominated turn as Alice remains a highlight of the show. Her rich and supple vocalizing enhances her convincingly rich portrayal of the character over 20 years. And she has a wickedly tart way with a line. Shively also impresses as an endearingly wide-eyed Billy who is perhaps at his best while letting loose in one of Josh Rodes’ energetic dances. Cummings does what he can with Jimmy Ray, but he’s given little character to inhabit.

The cast is filled with terrific performers who impress whenever they are given the opportunity to step out. But special note must be taken of Jeff Blumenkrantz’s shrewd work on Alice’s cantankerous editor, Daryl. In what could easily be a throwaway role, Blumenkrantz subtly reveals tiny hints about his character in each appearance, so that Daryl’s ludicrous pronouncement in the final scene becomes the biggest laugh in the show.

Bright Star doesn’t quite fulfill its dramatic ambitions, but its score, cast, and production offer much to entertain an audience.

Ahmanson Theatre    October 20 – November 19, 2017     centertheatregroup.org

 

Spotlight

Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”

ABOUT ELLEN RICHARD

Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.