‘Bright Star’ Lights Up Surflight Theatre

Lead Actress Turns In What’s Sure to Become a Legendary Performance
Sep 03, 2018
Photo by: Jack Reynolds

If you don’t get to Surflight Theatre to check out its last musical of the 2018 summer season, “Bright Star,” then you are going to miss out on one of the best, perhaps the best, performance by an actress at the Beach Haven landmark in the last 30 years. Adrianne Hick’s portrayal of the show’s pivotal character, Alice Murphy, is nothing short of spectacular.

Hick plays two Alices, a mature and strong literary journal editor in the mid-1940s, and a teenage Alice in the mid-1920s. Playing characters at different stages of their life is one of the most difficult things an actor can do. Sure, wigs, makeup and costumes can help. But a performer must also internalize the age differences. A person changes a lot in 20 years, both physically and emotionally.

Two examples from the world of film immediately pop up in my mind. The late Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall aged magnificently in “Brokeback Mountain.” And who can forget the job Robert De Niro did in “Raging Bull,” playing the young middleweight champ Jake LaMotta and – gaining 60 pounds to do so – the middle aged punch-drunk LaMotta?

But it can take months, even years, to make a movie. The filming on “Raging Bull” stopped for four months so De Niro could pack on the pounds. And film actors have the advantage of multiple takes. Hicks, on the other hand, seamlessly transforms back and forth between two decades in real time.

Hicks also showed she can sing in more than one musical style. She’s a musical theater performer, but in “Bright Star” it seems she’d be just at home in Nashville.

In 1945, Alice meets a young World War II vet, Billy Cane (Max Meyers), who has dreams of becoming a writer. The editor encourages Billy, even supports him financially as he tries to smooth out his rough literary style by giving him a check for 10 bucks as a retainer/helping hand. If that doesn’t sound like much, consider the fact the show is set in North Carolina at a time a 10-spot stretched a long way.

In 1923, Alice is a spirited backwater girl who has caught the eye of Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Andrew Foote), the son of her hometown’s powerful mayor (Steve Steiner). Her father, Daddy Murphy (Dale Given), notices she’s been spending a lot of time down by the river even though she hasn’t been taking her fishing pole with her. Her mother, Mama Murphy (Gerri Weagraff), tells him she’s surely intent on landing something but it isn’t a fish.

Alice gets pregnant. Both fathers agree to hide her in a cabin in the woods until she delivers her little boy. Then the mayor says he has arranged for an adoption and literally snatches the babe out of Alice’s arms.

There’s no adoption. Mayor Dobbs throws the baby off the back of a moving train into a river.

The mayor eventually confesses to Jimmy Ray, and the father and son are estranged. Alice grows up, despite desperately missing her baby, and heads off to college, secretly paid for by the guilt-stricken mayor. She’s not happy with her father, either.

So just about everybody is separated – father and son, father and daughter, Jimmy Ray and Alice. Meanwhile, in 1945, another young North Carolinian, Margo Crawford, is in love with Billy, who doesn’t notice her affection because he is so immersed in his writing.

In Act 2 everything is happily resolved, with not one but two weddings. I’ll give away the ending, but not how the story got to that point. I’ll simply promise you’ll be surprised!

“Bright Star” is the shining star of Surflight’s 2018 summer season. The book, written in the main by Steve Martin – yes, that Steve Martin – with help by singer-songwriter Edie Brickell – will keep your attention. The music, written by Martin and Brickell, will keep you tapping your feet.

“Bright Star” is billed as a bluegrass musical. That’s a stretch. Sure, an onstage band features typical bluegrass instruments – fiddle, guitar, mandolin and banjo – but also includes keyboards. Serious fans have heard keyboards in bluegrass, but not often. And they probably have never seen a bluegrass act performing from written scores. Plus, bluegrass often features long solos that play off each other, making it sort of hillbilly jazz.

So, let’s call the show’s music bluegrass-inspired or bluegrass-tinged. But it works, especially in the songs “Whoa Mama” and “If You Knew My Story,” and it sometimes approaches the “high lonesome sound” of traditional bluegrass.

The show itself is a winner, despite the fact it ran for only 30 previews and 109 regular performances on Broadway. That was almost to be expected – save for a few small enclaves in Brooklyn and Manhattan, bluegrass isn’t a draw in the Big Apple and its environs. Hey, it did garner five Tony nominations in 2016, including Best Musical, Best Book and Best Original Score, only to get buried in the “Hamilton” avalanche.

The Surflight production, directed by Elizabeth Lucas and choreographed by Elizabeth Troxler, is more than worthy of some awards. Even the scene changes were choreographed, making them not only smooth, but an integral part of the show.

The casting, from top to bottom, was uncanny, with quite a few performers playing smaller roles to a “T.” Given and Weagraff were appropriately backwoods stern while Dave Discenza playfully played Billy’s woodsy father. Stodd was a cute and earnest Margo (what was Billy thinking when he neglected her attentions?). Christa Steiner and Bobby Davis, who play associate editors at Alice’s Asheville Southern Journal, were a delight. Indeed, Davis, who played his part with more than a hint of Truman Capote, could have stolen the show.

Excepting, of course, that nobody could steal this show from under the feet of Hick.

“Bright Star” will be performed through Sunday, Sept. 9. Tickets are $39 for adults and $29 for children 12 years of age and younger. They may be purchased online at surflight.org, by phone at 609-492-9477, or at the box office, located at 201 Engleside Ave., Beach Haven.

— Rick Mellerup


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