The second song in Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s “Bright Star” is a sad ballad called “She’s Gone,” in which a father (David Atkinson) must tell his son, Billy Cane (Taubert Nadalini), that his mother died while he was fighting in World War II. “We had a visitor while you were away,” the father sings. “Unwelcome as he was, he came in one day. / He sat down quietly at your mother’s side. / She left with him sometime in the night.”
The two men embrace, grief spilling onto the stage. It’s a scene rife with emotion and poignancy, which may be one of the reasons that “Bright Star” had a short-lived Broadway run.
“I talked to a friend who was in the cast and I said, ‘You know, for some reason, I don’t think this show is going to last very long on Broadway, it’s kind of like ‘Big Fish,’” said Paul Garman, Musical Theatre West’s executive director. “It just has so much heart and such a message, they don’t tend to like those kinds of shows in New York.”
But, it was the kind of scene that made Garman want to bring the show west when it closed.
“I said, ‘I’d like to buy the Broadway set and costumes,’ and he said, ‘Hmmm, I think we’re going to run for months and years. Three weeks later, I got the phone call that they were, indeed, closing.”
Garman suspected that with “Bright Star” he might not only get the rights to perform the show but also get the rights to use the Broadway production’s choreography and buy the sets and costumes, which he will then be able to lease out to other companies who want to use the Broadway sets and costumes.
“It was really difficult, because [the Broadway producers] kept saying, ‘No, no, you can’t afford it, you can’t afford it,’” Garman says. “Once they realized they were going to be stuck with [the sets and costumes] and didn’t have a place to put it, then they said, ‘OK, we’re willing to do it for what you can pay.’”
For the theater lover with padded pockets, MTW’s staging of the musical this fall might seem redundant since the national tour of the Broadway production opened in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson Theatre almost a year ago. But seeing a show at the Ahmanson is expensive, with ticket prices ranging from $30-$135 in a theater seating about 2,000, meaning that many of the $30 seats end up being high enough in the balcony to induce vertigo.
Tickets to MTW’s “Bright Star” range from $20-$75 in the Carpenter Center, which is half the size of the Ahmanson, meaning those $20-30 seats are a lot closer to the action. This incarnation of “Bright Star” is the show’s regional theater debut.
The show’s songs are bluegrass-y and born from Martin and Brickell’s 2013 collaboration on the album “Love Has Come For You.” A few of the songs from that album are in the show, but much of the score is composed of original songs. The story switches back and forth between two time periods: before World War II, when Alice Murphy (Anna Mintzer) was a spirited young woman with big dreams, and post-WWII, when Billy, a young veteran and aspiring writer asks for Alice’s help in editing his work. Though Martin wrote the script, the show isn’t a broad comedy–it’s more melodrama, with moments of levity provided by the supporting characters.
Richard Gatta, who has been a part of the “Bright Star” creative team since before it went to Broadway, directs and choreographs the MTW production from Walter Bobbie’s original direction and Josh Rhodes’ original choreography. But even though he’s lived with the show since 2015, he and the cast still manage to make new discoveries.
“It’s really interesting to see how even shows that have been developed over the last four to six years can really take new roads and change and blossom into something,” Gatta said. “I think we’ve come up with some really great things, new elements of the show, which I think are small, minute elements, but they’re really powerful and poignant elements.”
Those elements were developed through the rehearsal process using a pared-down version of the show’s biggest set piece: a house that spins across the stage, holding the orchestra and setting the scene. The rehearsal version of the house was little more than a few 2-by-4s. For Paige Herschell, who plays Margo in the MTW production, that house is a good metaphor for the discoveries this cast made while rehearsing the show.
“It’s like going into this with kind of a foundation, and then we can build up from there,” she said. “We can add our own plumbing, and everything else to it.”
Musical Theatre West’s “Bright Star” starts performances at the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts (6200 E Atherton St, Long Beach, CA 90815) October 19, and runs through November 4. Tickets start at $20. For tickets and more information, visit musical.org/bright-star/.
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