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Even before hearing its second act shout-out to Eudora Welty, New Stage Theatre’s Francine Thomas Reynolds knew “Bright Star” would be a great fit for the Jackson stage.
The artistic director saw the new musical on Broadway in recent years. Now she’s directing its regional premiere at New Stage. Performances continue through June 16.
“Bright Star,” composed and written by comedian/musician Steve Martin and singer/songwriter Edie Brickell, is a celebration of storytelling, swept along on song and anchored in a South audiences can feel proud to claim — erudite and lively, with a profound appreciation of home. It won the 2016 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music, 2016 Outer Critics Circle Awards for Best Musical and Best Score and was nominated for five Tony Awards (in the season that smash hit “Hamilton” dominated).
Set in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains in 1940s, with flashbacks to the 1920s, the musical’s story was inspired by a real event, and “Bright Star’s” often sunny spirit, emotional songs and infectious music are a refreshing, winning combination, cast members say.
Sari Koppel (originally from New York state) has the lead role of Alice Murphy, a part that swings from a girlish and carefree teen to a polished literary magazine editor in her 30s. “It’s a very awesome challenge as an actor, to be able to have those two very distinct time periods to play,” says Koppel. She falls in the center of that age range — “wonderful for me, because I feel like each age is a bit more tangible. I can approach the 16-year-old Alice with honesty, as much as the 36-year-old Alice.” Alice is driven, with a fun-loving spirit muted by a mystery from her past. “It’s a wonderful playground for an actor, in terms of a role.”
Just as a banjo’s twang signals good times ahead, Martin’s and Brickell’s folk/Americana music strikes a pure, honest note in “Bright Star.” Strong emotions tug as the tale of love, forgiveness and redemption unfolds, but plenty of comedy comes into play, too.
Tyler Bellmon, an Oklahoman now of New York, has the role of Billy Cane, a young soldier returning home from World War II, whose literary ambitions lead him to Alice’s office at the magazine. There’s heart and humor in the character, Bellmon says, as well as a certain naiveté that resonates with audiences. “I’m a comedic actor at heart, but I love playing the honesty through comedy,” he says.
New Stage veteran John Maxwell calls his part of Daddy Cane, Billy’s dad, “frightfully easy” — just a matter of donning that old corduroy shirt from the back of his closet and settling into the well-worn comfort and kindness of it all. “The beautiful thing about this whole piece is the naiveté of the piece,” he says. “It really is kind of old-school in a way. It’s so much fun to just kind of fall into it, rather than having to think through it, journey into it. There’s none of that with Daddy Cane.”
Kathlyn Arcemont plays Margo, an old friend of Billy’s whose optimism, hopefulness and compassion embody the musical’s spirit. “I’ve never played a role like this before,” she says, enjoying the exploration in her first role as the love interest.
“I think Jackson audiences are going to love this,” Maxwell says, “because it’s about wonderful storytelling. The music is great. And, it’s all-affirming redemptive. Even with the heartache, the ultimate is redemption. It’s not a downer.” He and Reynolds expect literary nods will hit home in a state so rich in that heritage. “You’ve got an old hick up in the shed who’s reading Carson McCullers. … Somebody from the South would understand and recognize that immediately.”
“Bright Star’s” connection to home — with themes of finding your way home and back to each other — stuck with Reynolds, too. “I knew right away. This show may not play in other places. This show plays at New Stage Theatre,” she says.
“It’s the heart of the people,” Koppel offers, “and it’s demonstrated through the music so well. That’s what folk music is all about. Folk music is the people’s music — so representative of the culture and the dialect and the intellect of these wonderful people.” Banjo, mandolin, fiddle, guitar, bass, drums, piano and keyboards supply the live music onstage; Carol Joy Sparkman is the music director.
Devoid of spectacle, richly musical and purely told, “Bright Star” takes a shortcut to the emotional epicenter — the same route a strong country song follows — for pangs and laughs, tears and joy.
As Maxwell says, “It is a powerful play, in its simplicity.”
New Stage Theatre’s production of “Bright Star” is held over because of popular demand and sold-out shows. Newly added performances are 7:30 p.m. June 13-15 and 2 p.m. June 16. Tickets are $35, with discounts for seniors, students and groups, at www.newstagetheatre.com, 601-948-3531 and the theater box office at 1001 Carlisle St.