The third musical of the Candlelight Pavilion’s 2019 season, Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s “Bright Star” (through May 25th), is yet another worth-seeing hit for the 34-years-and-counting dinner theater in Claremont, CA. It is as engaging a production as one can expect given that it compellingly explores themes of hope, grief, regret, the inevitability of truth, and redemption amid Eugene Lee’s wood-crafted set from the 2017 national tour (on loan from Musical Theatre West). The singing and dancing are not only first-rate, but so is the dramatic (and sometimes comedic) acting, which separates “Bright Star” from its musical contemporaries to comprise a substantive show that culminates very satisfyingly.
The North Carolina-based plot is inspired by real events and takes place in 1945-46 with recurrent flashbacks to 1923-24. It begins when Billy Cane (Zach Fogel), an aspiring writer and soldier returning from WWII, reunites with his father (Jamie Snyder), becomes reacquainted with childhood friend Margo Crawford (Emily Chelsea), and takes the initiative to submit his stories to the Asheville Southern Journal, where Alice Murphy (Christanna Rowader) is a pull-no-punches editor. This soon precipitates the first “Way Back in the Day” flashback to Alice’s hometown of Zebulon, where she falls in love with local boy Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Nic Olsen), gets pregnant, and then gives birth to a son. However, Alice’s parents (Greg Nicholas and Dynell Leigh) and especially Jimmy’s father, Mayor Josiah Dobbs (Richard Malmos), are disapproving of this development, causing much heartache that echoes for a long time. In essence, what seems like two separate narrative threads, 23 years apart, align with a stunning clarity upon the musical’s conclusion.
Chuck Ketter and Kelly Baker have not only paid homage to the original director and choreographer, Walter Bobbie and Josh Rhodes, but have added their own little touches to the two-hour-and-twenty-five-minute production. Director Ketter does an excellent job of establishing the hook of unsettlingly high drama in Act I into the expectant Act II, and choreographer Baker (along with assistant choreographer Rachel McLaughlan) mixes mirthful swing-dance sequences with darkly urgent moments, which are carried out by a talented ensemble. Of course, Jane Greenwood’s costumes are authentically Southern and Aspen Rogers’ lighting design punctuates the story’s emotional stakes. But, above all, it would be remiss not to mention musical director Ryan O’Connell and his band, who can be seen on stage in Lee’s slightly unfinished wooden cottage, giving the bluegrass tunes the grit and aural flavor they need, with an amalgamation of sounds that alternate between the accordion, banjo, violin, drums, and more. The band is even deservingly front and center for the audience during the entr’acte when they exhibit their undeniable musicianship.
As the lead, Alice Murphy, Christanna Rowader gives a performance that is versatile and layered. On one hand, she makes for an exacting but fair editor, and as her character’s past reveals, she is also loving before a silent despair takes over her. Moreover, Rowader is a robust singer with a high belt, affecting a moving solemnity in her voice like with “If You Knew My Story” and the romantic duet, “What Could Be Better,” with Nic Olsen’s Jimmy Ray Dobbs. Olsen, like his amorous stage counterpart, is an effective singer and commands a range of emotion that spikes with dramatic impact in “Heartbreaker.”
Dylan Pass and Dayna Sauble portray Alice Murphy’s editorial assistants, Lucy Grant and Daryl Ames. They’re a zany and charming duo, providing much of the comic relief in “Bright Star,” though Sauble also sizzles sensually with her high kicks, turns, and alluring presence as Lucy in “Another Round” at the Shiny Penny, a bar near the office of the Asheville Southern Journal.
Zach Fogel imbues his Billy Cane with a tender and soft-spoken nature, particularly throughout his exchanges with Emily Chelsea’s Margo Crawford, a bookstore employee with a crush on Billy. Fogel’s powerful timbre, like in the title song, only adds to his persona’s pleasant disposition and underscores his ambition for wanting to get noticed as an author. Chelsea, too, comes across with a sweet and personable innocence insofar that the audience wants to see her happy.
Furthermore, the parents of the main characters play a big role in the trajectory of the plot with admonishments and ill-advised decisions on behalf of their children. For instance, Mama and Daddy Murphy – played by Dynell Leigh and Greg Nicholas, who are naturalistic as well-meaning but fundamentally parochial parents – warn Alice about the direction she’s taking her life in during “Firmer Hand/Do Right.” The indisputable antagonist, however, is Mayor Josiah Dobbs, who has a stirringly scary quality about him because he is so stubbornly resolute in his declaration that his actions – made in Jimmy’s best interests – are “right.” Richard Malmos conveys this expedient amorality with a palpable devilishness that marks a significant turning point. Conversely, the most sympathetic parent is Jamie Snyder’s Daddy Cane, an agreeable bumpkin, who is trying to be the best father he can be for Billy.
Last but not least is the dancing prowess and vocal harmonies of the “Bright Star” ensemble members, who clap, spin, stomp, slap their thighs, and harmonize in what amounts to an impressive crescendo and blossoming of sound. Similar to the band, the company is underrated in how well they support each number with either their cheeriness or tension-building consternation.
Ultimately, for those who missed the national tour of “Bright Star” when it played in Los Angeles (Ahmanson Theatre) or in Long Beach (Musical Theatre West), the Candlelight Pavilion’s production is just as heartfelt, riveting, and fulfilling from beginning to end, with its invaluable commentary on family and the propinquity of kindred spirits.
For more information about “Bright Star,” please visit candlelightpavilion.com