Bright Star shines for me, a very rewarding theater experience at the Omaha Community Playhouse.
So that is my answer to director Roxanne Wach who wrote, “Welcome to the mystical Blue Ridge Mountains. I hope Bright Star shines for you.” It was a quick and easy answer.
But it’s not so easy for me weigh in on how others will answer. The first person I told how much my wife and I enjoyed it replied that they’d talked to someone who didn’t like it. And I didn’t have to wonder why. It was a reaction to a terribly cruel turn the story takes at the end of Act One. I won’t tell you what happens except to explain that I knew enough to expect the horrific moment and to have hopes for a happier turn in Act Two.
So here’s the problem: To know or not to know, that is the question. Whether it is nobler to read a Wikipedia synopsis or be surprised or even sickened before the healing begins. The Francke family experiment, me knowing, my wife not knowing but promised a happy ending, worked well enough that both of us found it a profound and moving night in the theater. One full of music that fit the story like a glove.
Steve Martin and Edie Brickell present their collaboration as “inspired by a true story,” and director Wach mentions “a tiny kernel of truth.” My advice: accept a largely successful story and accept the ugly incident as the path to redemption and reunion. To me, the outcome is well worth it.
The authenticity of the music plus acting that overcomes the more melodramatic turns of the story contribute much to the success of Bright Star on the Hawks main stage. Thanks to costuming and other deft touches, the potential problem of a plot that jumps between the 1920s and 1940s poses little difficulty.
So we’re left with superb lead performances by Angela Jenson Frey as Alice, from teen-age mother to sophisticated literary publisher, and Jay Srygley, as Jimmy Ray, from teen-age father to responsible businessman. They are worth rooting for in both the 20s and 40s, with Frey especially effective at both ages.
On the more melodramatic side of the story, Michael Markey makes a perfectly nasty villain as Mayor Dobbs who sings, “A Man’s Gotta Do” what a man’s gotta do. Cork Ramer as Daddy Murphy, Alice’s father, shares in his cruelty but joins in the redemptive conclusion. Both are well cast as are more benign characters such as Dan Wach, the director’s husband.
Joining the two leads in the center of the plot is Matt Karasek as young Billy, who returns from military service to start a career as a writer, submitting stories to the Asheville Southern Journal, a literary publication run by the adult Alice. She also searches for information about the baby taken from her as an unwed mother.
The presence of four “spirits” may add a little confusion or a nice mystical touch, depending on your point of view. It’s easier to pick on such touches than to fully explain the power of this musical which includes everything from the musicians led by Jennifer Novak Haar to Julian Adair’s choreography and the scenic design of Jim Othuse.
The band plays center stage behind a scrim and before a Blue Ridge mountain setting. Like almost everything else in this production, it makes one grateful that this Covid-delayed production finally opened, two years after rehearsals first began, and two weeks after the scheduled opening was delayed by the county health department’s Covid concerns.
Bright Star runs only through Feb. 13 on the Hawks Main Stage of the Omaha Community Playhouse at 6915 Cass St. with 7:30 p.m. performances Wednesday-Saturday and 6:30 p.m. this Sunday. Tickets start at $25 and are available by phone 402.554.0800, online at OmahaPlayhouse.com or the OCP Box Office.