Surflight Presenting ‘Bright Star,’ a Steve Martin Musical

New Jersey Premiere of a Premier Show
Aug 27, 2018
Photo by: Jack Reynolds

Talk about a tire-screeching 180-degree turn! Surflight Theatre’s last main-stage musical was “Saturday Night Fever,” based on the movie that was the high water mark of the disco craze of the late 1970s. The current Surflight musical, which opened on Tuesday evening, is “Bright Star,” a bluegrass show.

If you never heard of it, that isn’t surprising. It was nominated for five Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Book of a Musical but didn’t win any because it was competing against a juggernaut called “Hamilton,” which sucked up all of Broadway’s oxygen and was nominated in a record-setting 16 categories, winning 11 including Best Musical. “Bright Star” had to settle for the Best Music Drama Desk Award and both the Outstanding New Broadway Musical and Outstanding New Score Awards from the Outer Critics Circle.

Now, you may be familiar with the show’s lyricist and co-composer, singer-songwriter Edie Brickell, the wife of Paul Simon. And you almost surely know the show’s other composer, who also wrote its book, a guy named Steve Martin. Yes, that Steve Martin, the wild and crazy guy. What you may not realize is that Martin, who often played banjo during his standup comedy days, is an accomplished musician.

Martin played banjo on Earl Scruggs’ 2001 remake of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” which won the 2002 Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance. In 2009, Martin released his first all-music album, The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo, which won the 2010 Best Bluegrass Album Grammy. 2011 brought him the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year honors. In 2013, Martin and Brickell released an album titled Love Has Come for You. Its title track won that year’s Grammy Award for Best American Roots Song. The Love Has Come for You collaboration was so successful the pair decided to create “Bright Star” together.

“Bluegrass on Broadway?” asked New York Times reviewer Charles Isherwood after seeing the show. “Yes sirree. The warming sounds of banjos, fiddles and even an accordion are filling the Cort Theater, where the musical ‘Bright Star’ opened on Thursday, bringing a fresh breeze from the South to the spring theater season. … It’s not just the unusual flavor of its music that makes ‘Bright Star’ something of an outlier on Broadway. The musical is gentle-spirited, not gaudy, and moves with an easygoing grace when others prance and strut.”

Martin is also an author and playwright, having written several novels, novellas and plays as well as a best-selling memoir. So he was up to the task of writing the book for “Bright Star.”

The show is set in North Carolina in the mid-1940s and, via flashbacks, in the mid-1920s. The 1940s part of the musical revolves around Alice Murphy, the worldly editor of a prestigious Ashville literary journal; Billy Crane, just returned from World War II with a bunch of short stories; and his girl friend Margo, who would rather be Billy’s girlfriend. The 1920s portion of the show features a younger Alice, who is sneaking around with Jimmy Ray Dobbs, the son of a sleepy town’s powerful mayor.

The young Alice’s story is the heart of the show’s book.

“This involves events,” Isherwood wrote, “more likely to be found in radio serials and movies of yore – a scandalous pregnancy, a baby torn from a mother’s arms, a still more dastardly act of violence – but among the pleasures of ‘Bright Star’ is the sheer yarniness of the yarn that unspools, so I’ll leave the rest to be discovered by audiences.”

Well, Isherwood didn’t keep his word. Indeed, he gave away the show’s ending. But he did compare the show’s book with the plays of a rather well-known playwright.

“‘Bright Star’ untangles all the knots in its story in something of a rush, with a startling reunion and not one but two weddings. It may strain the credulity, but one can easily point to a celebrated writer who often ended his plays in the very same fashion, with startling revelations, wedding bells set to peal for more than one couple, and perhaps tears in a few eyes. This would be William Shakespeare.”

High praise indeed for “Bright Star.” And Shakespeare couldn’t play banjo or sing and dance to “King Tut.”

“Bright Star,” which will feature an onstage band with keyboards, a fiddle, a mandolin, a guitar, an accordion and, of course, a banjo, will run through Sept. 9 at Surflight. Tickets are $39 for adults and $29 for children 12 years of age and younger, and may be purchased online at surflight.org, by phone at 609-492-9477 or at the box office, located at 201 Engleside Ave. in Beach Haven.

— Rick Mellerup

rickmellerup@thesandpaper.net

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