Monday, March 28, 2016

New Work from Steve Martin and Kenneth Lonergan

Paul Alexander Nolan and Carmen Cusack in Bright Star, by Steve Martin & Edie Bricknell. (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

The Renaissance man Steve Martin reinvents himself again as co-composer (with lyricist Edie Brickell) and book writer of the new bluegrass musical Bright Star, which has opened in New York after a premiere production at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre. The show continues Martin’s collaboration with Brickell, which began with the 2013 studio album Love Has Come for You. (A couple of the songs from Bright Star appear on that collection; roughly half of their 2015 album, So Familiar, consists of take-aways from the show.)

Steve Martin’s fans are sure to consider Bright Star an oddity: it does contain some humor but with one significant exception – one of the key dramatic scenes, a revelatory flashback, transpires while one of the ancillary characters is wading in a pond, hunting frogs for dinner – it’s surprisingly lacking in his trademark irony. The musical, set in North Carolina during two time periods (the mid-1920s and the era following the Second World War), tells the stories of a returning soldier in his early twenties, Billy Cane (A.J. Shively), who’s trying to become a fiction writer and, two decades earlier, the travails of Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack), the woman who ends up mentoring him at an Asheville literary journal. As a young woman, Alice is a renegade in a strict Christian farm town who becomes involved with a rich boy, Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Paul Alexander Nolan), over the objections of his father, the mayor (Michael Mulheren). Though there’s considerable freshness in the storytelling in the first act, the plot itself, which Martin and Brickell devised together, is a melodrama with depressingly familiar tropes. When one character tells another late in act two, just before unearthing the secret of the plot, “I knew this day would come,” I muttered under my breath, “So did I.”

The pleasures of the show are to be found in the music and in Walter Bobbie’s lively, kinetic production, which is performed with brio and a kind of tremulous fervency by a large, talented ensemble. As with almost all contemporary musicals, Bright Star has a disproportionate ratio of songs to dialogue, but quite a few of them are good and the texture supplied by bluegrass rhythms and harmonies is a welcome surprise in a book musical. That’s true especially in “Firmer Hand/Do Right,” where the complaints of Alice’s exasperated conservative parents (Stephen Lee Anderson and Dee Hoty) are juxtaposed with her protests at their attempts to remake her rather than accepting her for who she is; and in the rousing second-act bar song “Another Round” led by Shively and, as Alice’s junior editor and administrative assistant respectively, Jeff Blumenkrantz and Emily Padgett. Hannah Elless, as Margo, the bookshop owner who loves Billy, sings a lovely ballad called “Asheville,” a hopeful lament at his leaving his hometown to find his voice while he hovers close to the magazine he aspires to write for. Elless’ emotional rendition is one of the vocal high spots of the show, as is Cusack’s soulful performance of a lesser ballad, “At Long Last,” in the penultimate scene. The numbers tend to be confined to one time period or the other, but at one point, the outset of act two, the two eras are joyously unified by theme and mood in “Sun’s Gonna Shine.”

Except for Michael Mulheren there are no weak spots in the cast, and I don’t think the problem is really Mulheren as much as his role: he’s stuck playing the villain of the piece, the only part conceived without generosity. As his son Jimmy Ray, who’s as much a rebel against his upbringing as Alice is against hers, Nolan cuts an imposing figure, especially in the “Whoa, Mama” duet with Cusack, where he busts a few leggy square-dance moves across the stage. He’s a fine singer – the company is loaded with them – with a cheeky presence, but he loses all his color when he’s saddled, early in the second half, with the masochistic ballad “Heartbreaker,” and his performance never quite recovers. The immensely likable Shively fills the role of Billy with a mix of musical-theatre finesse and juvenile sweetness, and he’s lucky: he gets to share almost all his scenes with either Elless or Carmen Cusack, a British transplant I was unfamiliar with, who gives a livewire star performance. It’s a bit of a stretch to buy her as a woman in her twenties in the flashback scenes, but both her acting and her singing compensate for the slight disjunction. Anderson and Hoty, Blumenkrantz and Padgett, and Stephen Bogardus as Billy’s earnest dad provide ample support, and the ensemble is outstanding. (So are the onstage musicians, under the direction of Rob Berman, the accomplished musical director of City Center’s Encores! series.) Bobbie and the choreographer, Josh Rhodes, have encouraged the singers and dancers to contribute individuated work, and they’re more like a Greek chorus than a typical musical-theatre one – they help to set and sustain the tone. This must be one of the most democratic musicals I’ve ever seen.

Eugene Lee’s enormously clever set features a wooden structure that suggests a cross between a cabin and a band shell; the musicians inhabit the center of it as it flies across the stage, with dancers hanging off it or playing hide and seek around it. Bobbie’s staging is fluid and animated, and you can’t separate out Rhodes’ soaring, high-spirited (and strikingly varied) choreography. Only the moments of melodrama in the second act slow the show down, which is the reason the first act is more enjoyable. This is Walter Bobbie at his best – this is the Bobbie who helmed the 1996 revival of Chicago. He’s the real star of Bright Star.

Timothy Olyphant and Jenn Lyon in Kenneth Lonergan's Hold On to Me Darling. (Photo: Doug Hamilton)

Because of my most recent experiences with Kenneth Lonergan – his movie Margaret (2011), which he wrote and directed, and last season’s revival of his breakthrough play This Is Our Youth – I anticipated his latest, Hold On to Me Darling, at the Atlantic Theater Company, with pleasure. But it turns out to be something of a mess, though it was still in previews when I caught it and perhaps it has improved. The first act is light but very funny. The protagonist, Strings McCrane (Timothy Olyphant, the star of TV’s Justified), is a country-western music and film celebrity who returns home to Tennessee for his mother’s funeral. Strings is Lonergan’s satirical portrait of a star: charming, narcissistic, needy and used to immediate gratification. Olyphant seems to be having a wonderful time sending up his character’s superficial warmth and earnestness, which assures his down-home, just-folks appeal; he manages to sustain what is essentially a revue-sketch performance for over two and a half hours. Strings arrives with his adoring personal assistant, Jimmy (Keith Nobbs); his latest girl friend, Nancy (Jenn Lyon), follows. Their relationship is typical of his impulsiveness: she’s the hotel masseuse in the opening scene (set in Kansas City, where he’s shooting a movie when he gets the news of his mother’s death), who eagerly throws off a twelve-year marriage when he responds to her flattery and calculated air of sincerity and concern. But she’s just as much a narcissist as he is, and considerably more manipulative. The comedy in act one emerges from seeing how she handles his wandering sexual attention when he hooks up with a distant cousin named Essie (Adelaide Clemens) he reconnects with at the funeral and how he handles her survivor’s know-how and will of steel.

The problem in the second act is the wavering tone; Lonergan can’t seem to decide what kind of play he wants to write. Unlike the other characters we meet in act one – including Jimmy’s down-to-earth good-old-boy half-brother Duke (C.J. Wilson) – Essie, who has recently lost both her father and her husband, is sweet and rather delicate and devoid of ulterior motives. The fact that she’s also a little bland may be the inevitable result of contrasting her with these vigorous comic caricatures. It may also be down to Clemens’ performance, which stands in uneasy contrast to the skillful comic turns by Olyphant, Wilson, Nobbs and Lyon. Lonergan gets more serious with her scenes, and though of course you can deepen a comedy I don’t think you can deepen burlesque, so the shifts feel weird, confusing. That’s especially true of the encounter between Essie and Nancy in the hotel bar where Nancy, claiming to speak for Strings, gives Essie the brush-off, and of the final scene, between Strings and Mitch, the father who ran away from the family when Strings was a little boy and whom he hasn’t seen since. One of Strings’ decisions of a moment was to task Jimmy with tracking Mitch down in time for the funeral, but it takes him several months to do so, and by the time he does Strings barely remembers he set Jimmy on this mission at all, let alone why. But ten minutes before the curtain falls, Jimmy arrives with Mitch in tow, and, slowly, father and son make a connection. Jonathan Hogan, who plays Mitch, offers a beautiful one-scene portrait of a man who was intimidated by his ex-wife into giving up any parental rights and has spent the last quarter of a century regretting it. But the actor seems to have wandered in from some other play. Perhaps it’s the one Lonergan wanted to write all along.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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