By Patrick O’Brien
In some ways, Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s bluegrass musical Bright Star may be one of the most demanding musicals of late for its performers. Mind, it’s not the distressingly increasingly common type of musical that requires the lead actor to carry the weight of the whole show on her back, rarely leaving the stage, belting her way toward vocal fatigue. But the lead role here, Alice Murphy, does open the show with a song called “If You Knew My Story,” in effect a song about how great the ensuing story is going to be. If Bright Star is going to start with such a bald-faced tease, then Alice needs to be a presence that can grab hold of the audience from the first note, pull them into a sweet embrace, and never let go. This bluegrass needs electricity.
Missy Wise is that electricity, and BoHo Theatre must have a lucky star above that they were able to harness it for this regional premiere. She sings like an absolute dream, at turns as dry as whisky, as gentle as a lullaby, or throbbing with unfathomable grief. Even when she’s off-stage, you want her back.
She’s acrobatic, too, switching between two Alices. One is a young woman coming into her own in North Carolina, 1923, full of tenderness and heartbreak, some of that involving Jimmy Ray (Josiah Robinson), whose father disapproves of their youthful romance. The other is from 1945, a bigwig editor-in-chief for a Southern literary magazine, older, sadder but wiser, and keeping her guard up. That is, until returning soldier and prospective writer Billy Cane (Jeff Pierpoint, winning in his own right) walks through her door, armed with an armful of stories and an unbeatable tenacity. Their meeting starts them on a path that will pull them closer and closer together.
Once the show gets going proper, then Bright Star is just the sort of heartwarming hootenanny to ring in the change in season—funnyman Martin’s droller humor is well-timed to balance out his more wistful or occasionally cruel turns; his and Brickell’s music is toe-tapping, foot-stomping, and harmonically sumptuous and shimmering (Julie M. Nichols is music director, and another coup for the company); and their joint lyrics are homespun and pleasant. Never has a song like “Sun’s Gonna Shine” been so welcome than on press night, when temperatures climbed and spring finally came to Chicago.
It nearly might not have been so charming. Bluegrass’s relatively simple and repetitive form is hard to do right in a theatrical context, where songs are expected to regularly pass along new information. This would suggest that the director would have to direct the hell out every line, every note, making sure everything works in a narrative context, that everything moves forward. Ericka Mac’s direction, then, is a small miracle, in that she sets everything up, gets the hell out of the way, and everything still moves forward smoothly. She implicitly trusts the material and her performers to do right, resulting in some of the most disarming and honest performances currently onstage anywhere in Chicagoland, from the stars to each ensemble member.
Mac’s direction is also an example of how to turn what seems like a liability into a virtue. “Sentimentally predictable” is a common charge leveled against Bright Star, and the material can certainly lead one down that path. But for Mac, it’s not about whether the audience knows what’s going to happen before it happens, but the great cracking-open of feeling when, like overlapping circles, the past and present finally come together.
So if you’re willing to let your own guard down and let a little spring in at long last, the Greenhouse Theater Center is the place to be. Bright Star is set to shine on till May, but grab a seat while you can. This electric little musical is going to mean big things for BoHo.
BoHo Theatre presents “Bright Star” through May 5 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N Lincoln Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.