The bright sun shone on the face of Alice Murphy, played by the majestic Jordan Arnold, as she casually entered the playing space of Theatre Cedar Rapids’ Bright Star. This riveting musical (music/book and story by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell) is presented live and outdoors on Brucemore’s beautiful Peggy Boyle Whitworth Amphitheater. Arnold opens the show singing “If You Knew My Story” with a grin and a twang. Vocally reminiscent of country music great Reba McEntire, alto and strong, her voice rang out into the evening sky — you could hear the layers of life in Arnold’s voice, like a woman who has seen too much and lived a lifetime of hurt.
Arnold’s portrayal of Alice, as a spunky teen and into adulthood, is full of moxie and grit. Her sass and smart-mouth talk was played masterfully, keeping the audience waiting for her next sharp-tongued wit. I shot upright in my lawn chair when the whole company joined her onstage, one by one, like light beams shining on the worn wooden deck. To see a stage full of actors, smiles bright, was to fall in love with musical theater again right then and there. I hadn’t realized how much I needed that.
We are soon introduced to WWII soldier boy coming home, Billy Cane, played by Brandon Burkhardt. Burkhardt enters taking in the audience and breaks the fourth wall with his look out. He makes me long for his story, and he looks like he would just walk up to one of the audience and start a chat. Friendly and wholesome, Burkhardt takes our hearts on a ride with his performance. In a dissonant tune that hit me hard, Billy and his father — played gently and sweet by Caleb Haselhuhn — harmonize a tale of some tragic times while Billy was away. I wasn’t expecting the heavy feels straight away watching this show, but my spirit attached quickly to the characters presented, and my heart broke with theirs each time.
Seeing plays in this space is magical; there are things that happen organically you can’t replicate each night. As the evening birds twittered around Brucemore, Daddy Cane noted, “The birds are out tonight; lets go see what they have to say.” The birds, frog bellows, dragonflies buzzing by and ducks flying low over the audience make the small, rustic hometown of the story emerge around us.
New energy was thrust on stage when we move further into the town, meeting Margo Crawford, charmingly played by Erica Bailey. Bailey is fresh and eager — you can almost see the character’s heart spin when she sees Billy again. Throughout the play, her vocals were stunning, radiating joy and longing. The sparkles in her eyes were visible even from my back row placement — star-studded, just like the fairy lights that popped on around the stage as the night started to fall. Later we would hear how perfectly Burkhardt and Bailey’s voices sounded together, warm and well-mixed. Lauren Galliart (Florence) and Sasha Tyler (Edna), as Margo’s bookshop coworkers, were delightfully adept at establishing their characters. With just one turn of phrase or one nosy look at their friend, I knew their whole purpose and place in Margo’s life.
The ensemble players and featured dancer/actors were so essential in telling this story. They moved as if they were dancing no matter if they were changing scenery pieces or extending the picture onstage. Featured dancer Megan Robinson oozed beauty and grace whenever her feet lightly hit the stage, always in time with the music. Lucas Lowder, Levi Boston-Kemple and Justin McDermott were constant and steady, partnering with capable skill. The three “spirit” chorus — Meg Norris, Susan Scharnau Schultejans and Lia Scharnau — captured the main players’ internal struggles and emotional states with elegance and vocal fire. Whenever they entered with their billowy white chiffon drapes, I got goosebumps. The harmonies were sweet and chilling at times.
Whenever the ensemble were dancing the intricate and playful choreography (created by Bo Frazier, with assistants/dance captains — and dancing stand-outs — Galliart and Justin McDermott) it is thrilling. There are lifts and coupling movements that are so beautiful and unexpected, I literally said, “Oh!” aloud. Featured actors Norris, as the Well-dressed Woman, Beth Nelson as the Gov. Clerk and McDermott as Dr. Norquist each captured their characters with competence, fleshing out roles that were not necessarily written with fully captured stories. I also kept catching fun asides from these talented actors during group scenes, always staying present and engaged in the action.
The well-directed movement was also featured during one of the cleanest on-stage costume changes I have ever seen. We move back in time to 1923 as the change occurs and it is seamless. As a costumer and actress myself, I actually applauded the moment — embarrassingly, I was the only one who did: but it deserved an ovation.
The music is heralded by music director/piano-conductor Janelle Lauer, and she is joined by a six-piece band. The tunes are bluegrass and honkey-tonk, with highlights of banjo and fiddle when they really get a-groovin’. I love this kind of music and wanted more and more. I found myself wishing there had been intro music when they arrived onstage before the show started, and I found the sound of electric instruments sometimes lacking in the down-home essence of the score, but overall felt the band was a foot-stompin’, toe-tappin’ good time!
I was happy to see Arnold’s Alice meet her match in Aaron Brewer’s Jimmy Ray Dobbs, and I was struck by his ability to show such gumption and emotional transparency onstage. His voice is clear and robust, like a young Del McCoury, his “high, lonesome” sound echoed into the night: shattering the audience when he shattered, wooing us at other times. Intimate scenes with Arnold captured childhood innocence and first love delicately. I could see their work with intimacy/safety director Carrie Pozdol was essential, and I hope future productions use her expertise as well.
Jimmy Ray’s father, Mayor Joseph Dobbs, played with a constant glass of alcohol in hand by the dynamic Tad Paulson, was able to make me so angry I could spit. I loved how I was lead to hate the character so much; only a gifted actor can portray such a believable villain. His cohort, Stanford Adams (Alex Granfield), brought some buttoned-up stodgy humor to the mix that lightened up some of the heavier themed scenes.
The musical’s story is full of twists and turns, some dramatic and depressing and others silly and entertaining — the scenes set in the local jukejoint, The Shiny Penny, and in the Alice Murphy-headed The Asheville Southern Journal were most lively and amusing. Mic Evans as the audacious Daryl Ames and Sophie Lindwall as saucy Lucy Grant impressed me during these bits, with their Mid-Atlantic accent spin on a southern twang and comedic timing, sounding like the plummy-sounding characters of the early talkies. Lindwall’s song “Another Round” is flirty and fun.
More dramatic and intense, the scenes including Greg Smith and Sarah Maslowski as Daddy and Mama Murphy caught tears in my throat. Maslowski’s voice is angelic, and I found myself wishing for her harmonies under every song. Smith’s undercurrents of regret were visceral.
Homecomings are met with the love of the sweet Fred the Good Boy, playing Fred the dog — definitely an underused cast member that made the audience coo with appreciation.
As the night fell the lights rose up all round the stage, S. Benjamin Farrar’s lighting and scenic design dazzled. The tin roof looked like it was taken right off a fallen barn, rattled with age. The well-used chairs and ladders hung around the space looking suspended in time. There is some theatre scenic magic that happens in the second act of the play that drew applause, it’s so delightful, but I don’t want to spoil it for you here. The costumes, designed by Joni Dee Sackett with assistant Tanya Struve (who also handled the prop design) were great at placing the story in its eras. The choices were distinct and deliberate. The vintage suits and dresses were stunning (Alice’s red! Mayor’s linen!), and I was charmed by the details of costuming the crew and band (shout out to the Rosie the Riveter-realness served by spot op Kelly Shriver!)
Directed by Angie Toomson and assistant directed by Lisa Kelly, the rousing story set in the Blue Ridge Mountain towns of North Carolina starts in 1945-46, and then shifts to 1923 and back. The nostalgia is saccharine sweet, but palatable. Toomson’s deft direction rounded out the show, the plot of which is a bit wonky (and maybe a bit predictable) on the page. Presented by this cast, however I was kept enthralled.
TCR’s production runs Thursdays-Sundays through July 3rd at 7:30 p.m. on the grounds of Brucemore. Kudos if you are one of the lucky ones who has a ticket to the quickly sold-out run.