116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — “Bright Star” is a bright spot under the stars in Brucemore’s outdoor amphitheater.
After a week of high heat, humidity and just enough rain to cancel the final dress rehearsal, the weather cleared last Saturday night for patrons to enjoy their picnics and this Tony-winning musical by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell. Presented by Theatre Cedar Rapids, performances continue through July 3, but tickets are getting scarce.
It’s a story of love and loss, redemption and reunion, cruelty and forgiveness, set in North Carolina in the 1940s, with hops back 20 years to shine light on a back story shrouded in darkness.
What: “Bright Star,” a bluegrass musical by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell
Where: Presented by Theatre Cedar Rapids at Brucemore’s Peggy Boyle Whitworth Amphitheater, 2160 Linden Dr. SE, Cedar Rapids
When: 7:30 p.m. through July 3; run time 1 hour 45 minutes, with an intermission
Tickets: Selling out; check for availability June 25, July 2, July 3; $25 single to $100 square seating up to four; discounts, other options available; TCR Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or theatrecr.org
Extras: Linden Drive gate opens at 6:30 p.m.; parking on-site; bring chairs, blankets, picnics (beer and wine allowed), bug spray; concessions also available for purchase
By and large, it’s the story of Alice Murphy, played expertly by Jordan Arnold, an editor hardened and jaded by a life of trauma and gut-wrenching sorrow. She wasn’t always that way. She had a rebellious, carefree, fun-loving streak in her youth that went against the teachings of her strict, pious father (Greg Smith).
When she and handsome Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Aaron Brewer) sneak away from a town dance to make love in the moonlight, she ends up pregnant. Early on, she sings the hopeful “I Can’t Wait” to her unborn child.
This news, a cause of shame for an unwed teenager in those days, sets in motion a series of events where she is sent to a cabin in the woods until she gives birth, only to have her newborn son ripped from her loving embrace. Spirited away by Jimmy Ray’s cruel father, Mayor Josiah Dobbs (Tad Paulson), the child will be placed for adoption. Despite Alice’s anguish, her father’s signature grants permission — an action that will haunt him every day.
Alice’s light goes out, and in her sorrow, she goes on to college, searches records endlessly in hopes of finding her son, and in her heartache, brings sarcasm and gloom to her newsroom.
Arnold slips effortlessly between the two time periods and personas, flinging her loose hair and romping through her youth, then pulling up her hair, donning a suit and squaring her shoulders as she snaps and snipes at her employees and a fresh, new voice from Billy Cane (Brandon Burkhardt), a young man just home from World War II and eager to embark on a writing career.
More threads are woven through this tapestry, from crushes to secrets revealed, and bits of humor in keeping with Martin’s deft comedy streak. Always a bright spot are Mic Evans and Sophie Lindwall as Alice’s employees, with Evans’ Daryl adding the snark and Lindwall’s Lucy adding tipsy gaiety to “Another Round” in a bar scene, where Billy tastes his first liquor.
More drama ensues between Alice and her parents, Alice and Jimmy Ray, and Jimmy Ray and his father.
All of this is carried through the ebb and flow of bluegrass music melancholy and joyous, played expertly by a band at the back of the stage, led by music director, pianist and conductor Janelle Lauer. Everyone in the ensemble is terrific, but special shout-outs go to Lane Gaffney on banjo and Marita May on fiddle, taking Martin’s music for a ride.
I especially appreciated the way the music never overpowered the vocalists — something that doesn’t always happen on indoor stages. The only volume that can’t be turned down is the frog chorus after sunset, made louder by the loss of trees around the Duck Pond. But I did love seeing ducks flying overhead and dragon flies darting through the audience — two things I don’t recall from past productions in this lovely space.
S. Benjamin Farrar worked with the beautiful surroundings to design scenery that allowed plenty of movement for dance, while playing off the giant trees left standing — minus a few chunks — behind the stage. His lighting design helped define the many moods of Act 2, under the setting sun.
Saturday’s performance began slowly. We meet the cast in “If You Knew My Story,” followed by a somber “She’s Gone.” Then the title song kicks it up a notch, but misses the opportunity for choreography to chase away the static stage portrait.
Thankfully, lovely balletic elegance and lifts swirl though “Way Back in the Day.” Choreographer Bo Frazier builds on that momentum through lively square dances, a bit of swing, a little Charleston, percussive hand claps and more gentle ballet.
Under director Angie Toomsen’s guidance, the strength of the acting matches the strength of the story, making for a most-welcome return of theater to this idyllic Brucemore setting.
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