There’s something about folk music — the twang of a banjo, the lonesome drawl of a singer’s voice — that captures a certain melodrama that other genres can’t. It’s the perfect music to tell a story stranger than fiction, and it’s a folk song that inspired the musical Bright Star. As its main character, Alice Murphy, welcomes the audience to the show in the opening number, she forewarns it’s a crazy ride.
“Many backs have broken from lesser weight/ I know I was born to carry more than I can hold/ Even though I’ll stumble, even though I’ll fall/ You’ll never see me crumble, you’ll never see me crawl,” she sings. “If you knew my story, you’d have a good story to tell.”
Bright Star follows North Carolinian Billy Cane, a young veteran of World War II who dreams of being a writer. He travels from his small town of Hayes Creek to Asheville to get his stories published in the prestigious Asheville Southern Journal. As he desperately seeks the admiration of the paper’s editor, Alice Murphy, she reminisces about her own youth in the early 1920s. Told between the two characters, Bright Star is a tale about ambition and the challenges that get in the way.
The musical hit Broadway in 2016, stemming from musician Eddie Brickell and comedian Steve Martin’s bluegrass collaboration album, Love Has Come for You. Using songs from the album, the pair created Bright Star, which is also loosely inspired by “The Ballad of the Iron Mountain Baby,” a folk song written in the early 1900s.
Bright Star hits every nail on the head — memorable music, poignant lyrics, compelling storyline, thorough character development, attractive set design and an enchanting overall spirit. There is a whole-hearted sweetness that drips from Bright Star, but the musical isn’t saccharine. It’s emotional and substantial. Right away, there is a homey feeling that envelopes the audience, beckoning them to take off their proverbial coats and sit a spell.
The plot is rich with detail, unveiling slowly to keep the audience on its toes for the whole show. Whether it’s the Southern setting or the moxie of the characters, Bright Star feels like a glass of sweet tea on a hot summer day. It offers the comfort of nostalgia without feeling like a stale, rehashed story.
Characters are well-rounded and multilayered, and you want to root for them, whether it’s Alice or Billy or their love interests, Jimmy and Margot, respectively. And to balance the wholesomeness, Bright Star presents evil in the character of Mayor Dobbs, whose defining song is “A Man’s Gotta Do.” He is the patriarchy personified, exercising his will over women’s rights with a curt epithet, “I’m doing you a favor.” While the show takes place almost a century in the past, it resonates richly with #MeToo-modern audiences.
The lyrics from the show particularly stand out for their poetry and simplicity. The songs are full of strong visuals that pluck at the heartstrings. They are simple yet poignant like the stirring “Sun’s Gonna Shine,” or “Asheville,” where a forlorn girl sings about her love interest moving away.
This can also be seen in the second song of the show, when a son comes home from war asking for his mother. His father sits him down, and in “She’s Gone,” he explains, “We had a visitor while you were away/ Unwelcome as he was, he came in one day/ He sat down quietly at your mother’s side/ She left with him sometime in the night.”
Every member of the The Arvada Center’s cast delivered a spectacular performance. Dieter Biebrauer (as Jimmy) and Steph Holmbo (as Margo) delivered more-than-satisfying support to the lead actors, and both were missed when off stage. Jake Mendes delivered an excellent performance as Billy, capturing a youthful drive and a big heart with tenacity and talent.
The best performance of the night came from Merideth Kaye Clark as Alice Murphy. From the first to the last number, Clark was strong through the many dramatic peaks and valleys of her character’s life. She commanded the stage with grace and a wonderful voice to become the backbone of the production.
It’s hard not to love Bright Star. As Alice Murphy foretold at the beginning, you’ll leave the theater with a good story to tell.
ON THE BILL: ‘Bright Star.’ Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, 6901 Wadsworth Blvd., Arvada. Through Sept. 29.