A Southern Story | “Bright Star” @ The Ahmanson Theatre

Bright Star (Ahmanson Theatre)I have a wide ranging taste in music (as anyone who has listened to the 41,583 songs on my iPod on shuffle knows), but one of my longest lasting musical loves has been folk music, which branches very quickly into its kissing-cousins: Bluegrass and Celtic. So when I learned that Steve Martin (FB) — of King Tut fame — was not only an accomplished Bluegrass musician but was working on a musical with Edie Brickell (FB) — another accomplished musician — I was intrigued. I got the cast album of the musical (Bright Star), and fell in love with the music. So I was very pleased when a tour was announced, and the show became part of the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) season. We saw it last night, and even through a headache, we fell in love with the show.

The story of Bright Star is a hard one to describe, especially because going into too much detail might derail the second act. Suffice it to say that the story explores the interconnection between two families in North Carolina: the Murphy family and the Cane Family. It focuses on two relationships. The first is the relationship between Alice Murphy, the daughter of a local preacher, and Jimmy Ray Dobbs, the son of the Mayor. The second is the relationship between Billy Cane, who has just returned from WWII, and Margo Crawford, who has been waiting for him. The time frame varies from the time of Billy’s return and shortly thereafter, to times in the past when Alice was Billy’s age.

I had had an inkling of the story from the cast album before going in, but I still found it wonderfully touching. The pacing of it unfolded well, giving us time to get to know the characters and their motivations, which made what happened in the second act much more effective.

The music of the show is squarely in the bluegrass and folk realm, with twinges of country and gospel. It is a genre that is underrepresented on Broadway — the only other musicals with scores of this style are The Robber Bridegroom and Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge. I loved it, and I strongly recommend listening to it. We were lucky enough to have the key voice on the album, Carmen Cusack (FB), playing the same role in Los Angeles.

The staging of the show, as conceived by director Walter Bobbie (FB) and choreographer Josh Rhodes (FB), was beautiful. The band was primarily in a wooden house on the stage that the characters kept moving around and turning around. The ensemble remained in fluid motion around and behind the characters, transforming scenes as needed. I found it magical and charming (but then, I liked Amalie as well for similar reasons). This was one of those shows with what I would call a representative set — small stage pieces that represent a place — as opposed to some of the hyper-realistic sets you might see in another show. It worked, and it worked well.

The casting was spectacular. As noted before, the lead character of Alice Murphy was played by the originator of the role, Carmen Cusack (FB). It was no surprise, therefore, that the role fit her like a glove, and she was able to be playful and quirky and to truly inhabit the character. She also had a wonderful voice for the part. As I’m typing this up, I’m listening to the album she recorded at 54 Below, and it is just a marvelous voice.

Playing opposite her as her love interest Jimmy Ray Dobbs was Patrick Cummings (FB). Cummings had great chemistry with Cusack, especially in the scene where we see the relationship between the two while he is working on the icebox. Not a great surprise – he had also been with the cast for a while and was the understudy for Jimmy Ray on Broadway. He also had a wonderful voice for bluegrass.

Leading the other key relationship as Billy Cane was A. J. Shively (FB), who was also in the Broadway cast in that role. Lovely singing voice, great playfulness and earnestness. I particularly liked him in the “Another Round” number and in his interactions in both the bookstore and at the literary publisher.

Billy’s love interest, Margo Crawford, was played by Maddie Shea Baldwin (FB). Her role was smaller, but she shone in it, providing a lovely light and lightness in her scenes. She had a lovely singing voice.

In terms of recognizable supporting characters, there were two primary sets. The first set were what were essentially comic relief characters in Ashford at the publishing company: Daryl Ames [Jeff Blumenkrantz (FB)] and Lucy Grant [Kaitlyn Davidson (FB)]. Both played their roles perfectly. Blumenkrantz is a master of comedy; this was demonstrated the last time we saw him in Murder for Two.  He captured the sardonic nature of his character quite well. Davidson was a good foil: good looks, good delivery, wonderful movement, and great expressions. Both were just fun to watch.

The other set of supporting characters were the parents of the leads: Stephen Lee Anderson as Daddy Murphy; Allison Briner-Dardenne (FB) as Mama Murphy; David Atkinson (FB) as Daddy Cane; and Jeff Austin (FB) as Mayor Josiah Dobbs. All brought the requisite characterization and authority to their roles; many had played them on Broadway. Anderson, Briner-Dardenne, and Austin had particular nice voices for this music. I’ll note we’ve seen Atkinson many times before, being subscribers to  Actors Co-op (FB).

Rounding out the cast in smaller and ensemble roles were: Devin Archer (FB) [also: u/s for Jimmy]; Audrey Cardwell  [also: Edna, u/s Alice]; Max Chernin (FB) [also: Max, u/s Daryl]; Robin de Lano (FB) [also: County Clerk, u/s Mama Murphy]; David Kirk Grant (FB) [also: Dr. Norquist, u/s Mayor Dobbs]; Kevin McMahon (FB) [also: Stanford Adams, u/s Daddy Cane]; Alessa Neeck (FB) [also: Florence, u/s Margo and Lucy]; and Michael Starr (FB) [also: u/s BIlly]. Swings were Kelly Baker (FB); Richard Gatta (FB) [also: Fight and Dance Captain]; Donna Louden (FB) [also: u/s Alice]; and Robert Pieranunzi (FB) [also: Asst. Dance Captain.] This group should be noted for their beautiful and fluid movement, in addition to the characters they portrayed. They seemed to be having quite a bit of joy and fun with their roles.

Music was provided by a wonderful on-stage bluegrass band: I would have gone just to hear a two hour concert of these wonderful musicians. The band was under the musical direction of Anthony De Angelis (FB) – conductor, piano. The other members — onstage and in the pit — were: Jason Yarcho (FB) – Assoc conductor, accordion, autoharp; George Guthrie (FB) – banjo, acoustic guitar; Eric Davis (FB) – acoustic guitar, electric guitar; Wayne Fugate (FB) – Mandolin, acoustic guitar; Martha McDonnell (FB) – violin / fiddle; Skip Ward (FB) – bass; Joe Mowatt (FB) – drums / percussion; David Gold (FB) – viola / violin; and David Mergen (FB) – cello. Peter Asher (FB) was the music supervisor; Rob Berman (FB) was the supervising Music Director and did the vocal arrangements; and  Seymour Red Press as the Music Coordinator. Orchestrations were by August Eriskmoen (FB).

Rounding out the production and creative credits: As I noted earlier, the scenic design of Eugene Lee, with scenic design supervision by Edward Pierce (FB), worked very well to create the scene and the mood. This was supported quite well by the costume design of Jane Greenwood, the lighting design of Japhy Weideman, the sound design of Nevin Steinberg, and the hair and wig design of Tom Watson. Everything seemed suitably North Carolina and of the period; the moving set pieces worked well, and the lighting and sound worked to establish mood well.  Additional production credits: Lee Wilkins (FB) – Associate Choreographer; Howard Cherpakov, CSA– Original New York Casting; Calleri Casting (FB) – Additional New York Casting; Michael Donovan, CSA– Los Angeles Casting; Anjee Nero (FB) – Production Stage Manager; David Van Zyll De Jong – Company Manager; Larry Morley – Touring Technical Supervisor; Kirsten Parker  and Susie Walsh – Stage Managers.

Bright Star continues at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) through November 19, 2017. Tickets should be available through the Ahmanson Website. Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar.


Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre(FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

The drought has ended, and the last three months of 2017 are busy busy busy. A little later today, I’m going to see a thriller penned by the fellow through whom we get our Saroya (VPAC) subscriptions, Schaeffer Nelson (FB) — Mice at the Ensemble Studio Theatre LA (FB) in Atwater Village. The weekend before Halloween brings This Land at Company of Angels (FB) in Boyle Heights

Looking into November, we start with the Nottingham Festival (FB) in Simi Valley, followed by The Man Who Came to Dinner at Actors Co-op (FB). The following weekend brings a Day Out with Thomas at Orange Empire Railway Museum (FB), as well as The Kingston Trio (FB) at the Kavli Theatre in Thousand Oaks (FB). The third weekend will bring Edges at the CSUN Theatre Department (FB) on Friday, the Tumbleweed Festival (FB) on Saturday, and Spamilton at the Kirk Douglas Theatre (FB) on Sunday. Thanksgiving Weekend will bring Something Rotten at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and hopefully Levi (a new Sherman Brothers musical – join the Indiegogo here) at LA Community College Camino Theatre (FB). November concludes with the Anat Cohen Tentet at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB).

December starts with ACSAC 2017 in Orlando FL. As soon as we return, we’ve got Pacific Overtures at Chromolume Theatre (FB) and the Colburn Orchestra at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB). The weekend encompassing Chanukah sees us back at the Saroya  (FB) for the Klezmatics. We also hope to squeeze in a performance of A Christmas Story at the Canyon Theatre Guild (FB). Of course there will also be the obligatory Christmas Day movie.

Right now, early 2018 is pretty open, with only a few weekends taken by shows at the Pantages and Actors Co-Op. But that will likely fill up as Chromolume announces their dates, and announcements are received on interesting shows. Currently, we’re booking all the way out in mid to late 2018!

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.


Changes and Opportunities

By now, many of you have figured out the some of the story behind my post the other day: the Board at our congregation dismissed our Senior Rabbi for some reason; the other Rabbi resigned shortly thereafter. Whatever reason the board had, I’m sure, may come out over time — at this point, it doesn’t matter. There are “town halls” today and next Sunday to discuss the situation. I’m not attending today; nor do I plan to attend next week. I wanted to explain why, and where I stand on this issue.

First and foremost, although I can speculate on a reason, at this point it is none of my concern. The Congregation elects a Board and expects that Board to work in the interest of the Congregation. The current Board has had a thankless task: there were some significant budget shortfalls going in, and a large group of members didn’t renew. It was clear that what we were doing was not attracting new members from the community. In this environment, it was time for review of the Rabbi’s performance and consideration of a new contract. The Board obviously did that, received some information, debated things vigorously, and came to the conclusion that resulted in the situation we are now in. For legal reasons — in particular, to protect the employee — they cannot disclose any more publicly. Think about it: If you were let go, would you want your employer disclosing the reasons for doing so to the world?

Any Rabbi has supporters and detractors. At the Town Hall, those who support the Rabbi will try to convince the Board to change their decision. At this point, that will not happen and should not happen. Here’s why: Even if the Board made a mistake (and I do not know whether it did or didn’t), any damage and divisiveness has been done. The split has already occurred. If the Rabbi came back, those who saw or experienced what problems occurred will now be on the short end, and that wouldn’t be good for a congregation’s future. It is an unrealistic expectation.

The followers of the Rabbi — if the Rabbi wants — may try to form a new congregation. That is their prerogative, and I wish them luck. In this era where many congregations are having trouble, it will be difficult. But this is often how new congregations form. In fact, it is how the current congregation started: one of its forerunners was a split from another congregation.

I won’t be going with them. Most of the folks who I have noted commenting in favor of the Rabbi are folks that haven’t been active on the Boards over the years. The Board members and Past Presidents have mostly been silent; presumably, they are supporting the current Board. During my stint as President of the Mens Club, I’ve gotten to know these people very well: I know they will work hard for the congregation’s survival.

I view this as an opportunity that has been given to us.  The situation is what it is and not of my making; whether I agree or disagree (and I’m not saying publicly), I can only move forward. Forward means remaking the congregation into something that works, for what we have been doing is no longer working. The face of Judaism — and especially Reform Judaism — is changing. I heard somewhere that the reason our parents (and my generation) joined congregations was continuity: giving Judaism for their children.

But the youth of today aren’t looking for that. They are looking for a community that cares and listens to one another. They are looking for authenticity — real Judaism, not the cruft that has accumulated over the years. I believe they are looking for what Reform Judaism should be: understanding all of Judaism, and then picking community and individual practices that add meaning based in Jewish values. For some, that’s worship. For some, that’s study. For some, that’s social action. But it all needs to be in an accessible language and with accessible means.

The unfortunate situation of the last week provides the opportunity for our congregation to be a phoenix of myth: born out of the fire of conflict into something newer and better. We have a Board and a collection of congregants that are likely to be willing to work. Now it is time to rebuild and move forward.