A “Bright Star” is shining over San Francisco’s Curran Theatre, casting a warming glow over the city with its rich brew of Americana, bluegrass and nostalgia.
Banjos and fiddles aren’t the only instruments plucked rather hard by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s unabashedly sentimental new musical. Heart strings get tugged on something fierce as this 1920s North Carolina yarn unfurls in bluegrass harmonies and tear-stained melodies.
The soul of the musical is Carmen Cusack’s incandescent turn as the rebellious Alice, a free spirit with a Cheshire Cat grin and a keen mind who falls into love and trouble with the son of the mayor of her hometown of Zebulon. Her brush with the brash Jimmy Ray Dobbs (the suitably dashing Patrick Cummings) will shadow her the rest of her life. The electric chemistry between Cusack and Cummings gives these courtship scenes a depth charge of zing.
In fact Cusack, who earned a Tony nomination for her Broadway debut in this production, seems lit from within throughout the show. She elevates this effervescent piece, adding depth to sometimes flat lyrics and burnishing every melody to a fine sheen with her delicate twang. The actress also magically transforms from the giddiness of youth to the stiffness of middle age with a simple fluttering change of dress.
The musical dances back and forth in time so we meet the older Alice, sharper than ever but also bruised by life, before the younger one. She has become the hard-nosed editor of a Southern literary magazine. There she encounters Billy Cane (A.J. Shively), a fresh-faced GI just back from World War II, eager to become a writer. They turn out to have a bond that goes beyond a love of fiction.
Make no mistake, this is a largely soap operatic Southern journey that’s most stirring in its musical delicacy. While the text itself sometimes veers into the maudlin, suggesting the hokey plot twists of an old movie, the score is ever entrancing. The band is tucked away in a ramshackle barn on stage.
Ditties such as the frisky “Whoa, Mama” and the uplifting “Sun is Gonna Shine” sweep the listener away to a less cynical place and time. The hootenanny-style homage to booze, “Another Round,” is so galvanic you almost wish Billy fell for the brassy Lucy (Kaitlyn Davidson) instead of the bookish Margo (Maddie Shea Baldwin).
Walter Bobbie’s (“Chicago”) nimble direction heightens the sense of intimacy of this homespun musical. Josh Rhodes’ choreography feels tender but also understated, never distracting from the bittersweet songs which are the show’s spine.
Alas, the ending shreds all notions of credulity, but Cusack never stops channeling an emotional truth so raw that she hits you where you live. You may see many of the shocks and jolts coming from miles away but it hardly matters. When Cusack is lilting her way through the show’s aching melodies, it’s hard not to feel the light and heat of “Bright Star.”
By Steve Martin and Edie Brickell
Through: Dec. 17
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes, one intermission
Where: The Curran theater, San Francisco
Tickets: $39-$175, sfcurran.com