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'Bright Star' is bluegrass meets Broadway

Original post made on Sep 18, 2019

Palo Alto Players' musical "Bright Star" has some winning elements but lazy writing keeps it from fully shining.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Wednesday, September 18, 2019, 11:03 AM

Comments (6)

3 people like this
Posted by Patrick Klein
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 18, 2019 at 12:30 pm

Obviously I couldn't disagree with you more about your assessment of the piece, Karla, and I'm sorry you personally didn't care for the writing of this lovely show. However, I think it's very fair to say that our opening weekend audience - who, practically as one, leapt to their feet in enthusiastic applause immediately after the final note of the show - would wholeheartedly disagree with you as well. It should also be mentioned that we just received the coveted "Go See!" designation from the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle, awarded when several members of the Circle have seen a production they think is well worth special attention. I hope your readers give this one a chance, as it truly is an affecting and uplifting experience at the theater.

5 people like this
Posted by Local theater buff
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 18, 2019 at 1:33 pm

I think maybe it was just you. Thank you for being honest that your reaction was different than the audience's. I was there opening night, and this was my impression, which was closer to the Mercury News' reviewers than the above
Web Link

or to this respected Bay Area theater critic's review (gave it 5 stars out of 5):
Web Link

In my opinion, the show shines as a play over a series of just really lovely, heartwarming musical numbers that both move the plot along but are catchier and more uplifting on the whole than most productions. The music is really good throughout, both in writing and the performing of it. Many of the singers, not just Sultana -- though she is certainly a standout -- are on par with the recording you can buy from the Broadway production.

As someone who grew up in parts of the South and a big bluegrass fan, I was steeling myself for corn-pone and it never materialized. I thought the production was sweet, not "artificial" and could watch it again. I especially loved the relationship between Jimmy Ray and Alice, and between Alice and her father, especially in the redemption scene. Redemption is hard to do in any theatrical form, and I thought it was handled beautifully here.

As a theater nerd, I was in awe of how seamlessly they handled the transitions, including between different time periods, it was skillful, even innovative. The characters were endearing, and they deftly handled very emotionally difficult subject matter within the context of a lighthearted musical.

I also don't get the criticism of the show's songs. Asheville, one of the tunes I am still singing around the house, wistfully expresses the inner desire of Margot to have a deeper relationship with her childhood friend, Billy. Change the name "Asheville" to Nashville, and it could be a contemporary country hit:

When you get to Asheville
Write me if you will
Tell me how you're doing
How it's treating you

Do you like your new job?
Did you find a new love?
Is it everything that
You were dreaming of?

Ooh, if it don't work out
Ooh, if it don't work out
Ooh, you can turn around
And come on back to me
Come on back to me
You can come on home to me

t won't be the same here
Without you I'll be fighting tears
When you were over in the war
I fought 'em off before

I'll just stay on the lookout
And I'll listen for the sound
Of your old '34 Ford
Coming down…

I think this is one of those situations, like on Rotten Tomatoes, where it's good to understand how the audience likes a production versus the critics. I find on Rotten Tomatoes that the average audience ratings are a better guide for whether I will like something. I hope people will consider the same here. Thanks to the reviewer for at least being big enough to admit that her reaction differed from the audience's, which was overwhelmingly positive for a really first-rate production.

This is professional theater, not community theater that I remembered from my childhood...

4 people like this
Posted by Local theater buff
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 18, 2019 at 3:24 pm

P.S ---

The play was nominated for several Tony's -- Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Orchestrations among them. The CD was nominated for a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album.

I think the reviewer missed something very key here, and that is that the whole musical really represented something fundamental about bluegrass: Bluegrass is filled with hardship and sorrow of life, love lost, death, devastation, yet is perennially sunny and optimistic in the tone of the music.

The whole production embodied that and brought it to life in a Broadway musical — the whole thing is an ode to what bluegrass is.

I mean, think of bluegrass songs most people know, every one practically a sunny toe-tapper, but consider the words:

-I'll Fly Away (Some bright morning when this life is o'er, I'll fly away);
-Will the Circle Be Unbroken (I was standing by my window, On one cold and cloudy day When I saw that hearse come rolling For to carry my mother away);
-Man of Constant Sorrow (I am a man of constant sorry, I seen trouble all my days)
-Blue Moon of Kentucky (Blue moon of Kentucky keep on shining Shine on the one that's gone and proved untrue);
-Cotton-eyed Joe (If it hadn't been for Cotton-Eye Joe,I'd been married a long time ago)
-Sunny Side of the Mountain (Now don't forget me little darling while I'm growing old and gray)
-Little Cabin Home on the Hill (Tonight I'm alone without you my dear It seems there's a longing for you still, All i have to do now is sit alone and cry, In our little cabin home on the hill)
-Molly and Tenbrooks (Molly said to Tenbrooks you're lookin' mighty squirrel, Tenbrooks said to Molly I'm a-leavin' this old world)

I could go on (and on and on). If you heard any one of these songs, you’e clap your hands and sway to the joyous beat.

The point is, that was the gestalt of the whole musical. Steve Martin clearly gets bluegrass.

I guess I would say if you didn't "get" the humor, irony, social commentary and pathos of "A Man's Gotto Do" (played beautifully in this production) then you don't really get Steve Martin. The audience roared with laughter upon hearing the first line and were appropriately sober at its end -- it was definitely a Martin audience -- and were on their feet the moment the show closed, not something I've often seen.

Local productions take a lot of risks when they choose a new musical, because often the musicals pay for the rest of the season. Just reviewing the reviewer here, we get that she didn't like the writing, but was it really necessary to temper almost every positive thing said by repeating that again and again in new and more negative ways?... Again, I think it was big of the reviewer to admit that maybe it was something about the reviewer herself. But it's still a shame that a review like this in the company's own backyard, when the other major reviews like the Mercury News were so overwhelmingly positive, might discourage the company from bringing in fresh material like this.

But I loved it, so...

3 people like this
Posted by Linda
a resident of another community
on Sep 19, 2019 at 1:11 pm

This is a WONDERFUL musical--so much talent, and a sweet story. NOT overly sweet, as Karla Kane said in her very personal review. Four of us enjoyed it together on the Friday preview night, and the rest of the audience seemed totally appreciative and enthusiastic also. GO SEE IT!

1 person likes this
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 19, 2019 at 1:44 pm

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

This would be a very interesting audience experience to see this and Molly Tuttle back to back, ie Sept 30 at Mitchell Park.

3 people like this
Posted by Jessica
a resident of another community
on Sep 22, 2019 at 8:38 pm

I had the pleasure of seeing "Bright Star" this afternoon and I just...don't get this review. The reviewer praises everything about the production but says she didn't like the actual piece of theater, which is puzzling. The point of musical theater is to tell stories with heightened emotions in a finite amount of time, and Bright Star tells the story of one of the most fundamental human emotions that exists - hope. Hope for a better future for yourself. Hope that you can build a life with someone. Hope that you find what has been lost. And if the critic found the story to be cliche and the plot points predictable and too tidy, I simply don't agree. You know what would make a boring show? One that reflects most days of most of our lives! Bright Star takes an extraordinary tale and sets it to infectious music, beautifully staged and performed by Palo Alto Players. I can't recommend the show enough.

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