Composer Stephen Sondheim famously said he prefers actors who can do some singing in his musicals to singers who can do some acting. It would seem the folks at Lyric Arts have the opposite preference.
The Anoka theater is giving the Steve Martin-Edie Brickell musical “Bright Star” its regional premiere in a production that is gloriously sung. The cast, which is actually slightly larger than in the 2016 Broadway production, is filled with gifted singers. They nail the close harmonies in Martin and Brickell’s bluegrass-tinged score as well as the high-and-lonesome sound of the North Carolina mountains. Heck, the evocative little hiccup Jan Joseph brings to her supporting character’s solos made me feel less like I was in a theater and more like I was whittlin’ and waitin’ for some sorghum to boil on the wood-burnin’ stove.
It’s probably wise to prize singing over acting in “Bright Star” because Martin and Brickell’s songs are the biggest asset of the show, by a long shot. Just about all of them would sound right at home on a mid-’90s Alison Krauss album but, within the contemporary bluegrass idiom, the songwriters have found lots of different colors of blue, ranging from the plaintive wail of “If You Knew My Story” to the almost ghostly tenderness of “Whoa, Mama” to the buoyant “Sun’s Gonna Shine.” Under the musical direction of Elise Santa, all are crisp and beautiful, and they’re sweetly interpreted by choreographer Heidi Spesard-Noble, whose movement captures the emotions and setting of the piece.
Martin and Brickell were less successful in crafting the story, and the actors, some of whom are self-conscious in their movements and speech, have less success interpreting it. Inspired by a true tale, it introduces us to Alice Murphy (Katie Strom Rozanas), editor of a literary journal. She meets a young writer named Billy (Cam Pederson, whose honeyed voice is one of the cast’s best), just home from World War II and eager to be published. Their interaction leads Alice to reflect on events from two decades earlier that are best not spoiled. Let’s just say they’re unlikely and that “Bright Star” doesn’t always have a handle on when it’s a good time for a musical number or which characters we care about.
The show is so overpopulated, in fact, that there’s not enough time to make the leads vivid (we’re told Alice is so hypercritical that “she once made Ernest Hemingway cry,” but we’re shown no evidence of that).
Which brings me back to Sondheim, who argues that a musical’s form must follow its content, a rule “Bright Star” breaks by gussying up its simple story with overly complicated time jumps and multiple points of view. It’s a flawed show, but I’m really glad Lyric Arts is tackling it, because this music deserves to be heard, and I can’t imagine it sounding much better than it does in this version.