By Bill Hirschman
Actors Playhouse’s lively musical Bright Star is a Broadwayized vision of the uniquely American genre – the venerable folk-country fable — replete with spirited dances, classic character types, a genuine respect for everyday folk, and, ultimately, a moral about bedrock virtues persevering over profound tragedy.
But this production’s strengths are its banjo-and-fiddle bluegrass score by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell (really), its energetic cast, and, above all, its soaring central performance by Kimberly Doreen Burns who excels whether delivering an introspective ballad, a gut-wrenching gospel-like showstopper or a kick-posterior roof-raiser.
Martin (who, of course, has spent a lifetime playing the banjo) and Brickell (best known for her work with the New Bohemians) have crafted an engaging score that often sounds like the early hits favored by Reba McIntire and Dolly Parton. But the music and the variable lyrics are rooted even more deeply in this unique cross of early 20th Century Hill Country folk and the familiar construction of reliable Broadway tropes.
It opens with a rousing musical welcome from heroine Alice Murphy (Burns) in 1946 who lets us know she is about to tell us a story set in the past — actually two pasts, her childhood in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina in 1923 and the recent past of 1945, just after the end of the war.
The evening intersperses the two periods. One depicts a likable young veteran Billy (Teddy Warren) returning to his backwoods home. He dreams of leaving behind his loving widowed father (Barry Tarallo) to become a writer like Thomas Wolfe. He goes to Chapel Hill attempting to sell his work to the nationally-renowned literature magazine The Asheville Southern Journal where the 38-year-old Alice is the esteemed, but emotionally-guarded editor.
The second journey shoots back to a vibrant, exuberant Alice when she was 16 years old living in a similarly rural community with a preacher father who discourages her yearning for a better life. She is deep in a romantic relationship with the mayor’s son Jimmy Ray (Alex Jorth) that results in her becoming pregnant.
Her father (Peter McClung) and the class-conscious mayor (Jim Ballard) force her to have the child in a far-off cabin and then forcibly wrest the child against Alice’s anguished protestations, ostensibly for adoption. But a further tragedy shatters the relationship with Jimmy Ray. She leaves home to create the life we have seen her in earlier.
You can probably see what’s coming, but it is a fable, and the writers, director David Arisco, musical director Eric Alsford, choreographer Sarah Crane and this fine cast have infused the evening with joy, grief and uplift.
Burns, memorable as Dot in Zoetic Stage’s 2017 Sunday in the Park With George, played her role before in Naples in 2022, as has Ballard. Her familiarity with it invests her performance with power and confidence. Her singing, which stirs the audience’s hearts as well as the rafters of the theater, indeed, sounds like Reba.
Burns is especially effective portraying Alice’s changed personality, initially as the shuttered adult, then as the ebullient teenager, and then later as the adult begins to change when revelations open her heart.
Everyone else connected to the production exudes a verve including needed comedy interludes from Conor Walton and Charity Van Tassel as Alice’s colleagues on the magazine. Alexandra Van Hasselt makes an appealing hometown girlfriend who patiently awaits Billy coming to his senses.
High praise is due Alsford and his on-stage band, especially Justin Hiltner on banjo, plus Sam Sherwood on guitar and Margaret Dudasik who roam in and out of the scenes. But he also helps the cast mold the complex harmonies hidden in the vocal score.
What is especially memorable is that while the score and the story may feature a countrified feel that not every Broadway fan would seek out, it harbors a deep winning respect for aspiration, intelligence, persistence and plain human decency that should win over anyone.
Actors’ Playhouse’s production of Bright Star continues through April 16 at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile in Coral Gables. Performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 3 p.m. on Sundays. Ticket prices range from $40 to $125. For tickets, call (305) 444-9923 or go to www.actorsplayhouse.org.
Read Christine Dolmen’s artburst.com preview feature by clicking here.