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Steve Martin’s Kennedy Center Musical Bright Star Is Comfort Food for the Soul

The cast of Bright Star. Photograph by Joan Marcus.

Bright Star, the much-anticipated new musical by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, opens in a small North Carolina village nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

World War II has ended, and Billy Caine (A.J. Shively), a strapping young soldier, returns to his father’s (Stephen Bogardus) modest cabin unscathed and undaunted in spirit, with dreams of becoming a great writer. With a clutch of short stories written from the trenches, the help of his childhood friend and confidante, Margo (Hannah Elless), and a few white lies, he wheedles his way into the office of the venerated, but formidable editor Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack).

As luck (or plot contrivance) would have it, Billy’s exuberance and promised talent remind Alice of her younger self. Transported back to the 1920’s, Alice is a plucky, defiant young girl with a bright future and dreams of escape. But Alice also has stars in her eyes for Jimmy (Paul Alexander Nolan), the mayor’s son. When youthful frolic leaves Alice in a family way, a dark deal is struck and a monstrous act irreparably changes their futures.

Prompted by the same strain of nostalgia that led to the success of the Coen brothersO Brother, Where Art Thou?, Martin and Brickell’s score weaves together folk, bluegrass, and the occasional rock beat to create a distinctive Americana sound. The first act feels less like a typical Broadway musical and more like a bluegrass concert, or an evening pickin’ on the front steps of the local general store.

Director Walter Bobbie and choreographer Josh Rhodes underline the music’s role by placing a large portion of the orchestra onstage for the duration of the show. Housed in a moveable cabin on wheels, the musicians are wheeled about in a dizzying fashion, while the actors regularly cavort through and around them.

Bright Star’s score is intricate and robust, though some of the first act’s songs go on too long, and only Cusack’s voice stands out. But the second act remedies these complaints. In a lively bar scene, Alice’s man-crazy assistant, Lucy (Emily Padgett) delivers a saucy break from the blues with “Another Round,” showcasing a brassy set of pipes and a high kick to make a Rockette blush.

Lucy’s co-worker and sidekick Daryl Ames (Jeff Blumenkrantz), expertly delivers most of the shows best comic lines, with the kind of smirk that lets the audience in on the joke. And, in a show that tends to keep emotions on the surface, an agonizing scene between Jimmy and his father, Mayor Josiah Dobbs (Michael Mulhern), and Nolan’s stirring number “Heartbreaker” stops the audience’s collective breath.

Cusack, deftly moving between her roles as the younger and elder Alice, gets her due in the second act with songs that showcase her clarion voice and glimpses into the deeply haunted woman Alice has become.

Bright Star may not be envelope-pushing theater with all the story it borrows from Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde. But Martin and Brickell’s idyllic setting and toe-tapping melodies do well by both the traditions of American musical theater and Americana music. Bright Star is comfort food for the soul.

Through January 10 at the Kennedy Center. Tickets $45-175