Alice Murphy is the tough as nails, hard nosed editor of a literary magazine who takes an aspiring writer, Billy Cane, under her wing. But. . .if you only knew her story. And know it you shall once you watch Bright Star which is currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.
This show has had quite the odyssey. It was just getting ready to open at the Playhouse in March 2020 before things took a turn. Finally, it was set to open in January 2022 when the pandemic again caused a delay due to a new surge in infections. But, at long last, it has opened and, believe me, it was well worth the wait. It may be getting a shortened run, but this show deserves to be seen whether you come in person or stream it.
I don’t know what it is about bluegrass musicals, but they really get a hold on me. The scores tend to be fun and emotional and the storytelling seems to be of an unusually high quality and this show is no exception.
While this show is co-written by famed comedian Steve Martin, don’t expect the slapstick comedy that made him famous. Martin and his writing partner, Edie Brickell, churned out a very sophisticated, mature piece of entertainment that will have you laughing, cheering, crying, and maybe even your blood boiling at certain points. In the hands of this talented cast and crew, your appetite for satisfying entertainment will be thoroughly satiated.
If there was any good that came out of such a long delay for the show, it is that it allowed Roxanne Wach the opportunity to make certain she had everything just right for the production. Her directing is splendid. No false note is struck. Her actors know how to emote and perform through the songs instead of just singing them. Her guidance of the actors is dead on target. Every emotional beat is true and every nuance of the story is completely analyzed and excavated.
The ensemble of this show has been one of my favorites to watch. They created an entire world by always being in the moment. Nobody ever stood around. They were always busy with vital pieces of business that just fleshed out the story’s reality so beautifully. And their harmonies? Oh, heavenly!
Some truly wonderful supporting performances come from Mike Markey whose bosslike mayor clearly has ice water in his veins with some of his heinous and monstrous actions to keep a grip on his legacy and power; Kevin Olsen provides some terrific humor as a snotty, struggling writer; Analisa Swerczek is sweet as a bookstore owner whose friendship with Billy Cane blossoms into love; Mackenzie Zielke is stellar as a hard drinking party girl with a lustful eye on Billy.
If I’m sure of one thing about Angela Jenson Frey’s portrayal of Alice Murphy is that it will make her a top contender for this season’s Fonda-McGuire prize. Frey nails the role of Alice in both the present and the past. In the past, her Alice has a bit of an arrogant air about her as she’s fully aware of her intellect and that she’s built for bigger and better than her little town of Zebulon and she joyously engages in verbal jousting with her paramour, Billy Ray Dobbs. But she also has a heart of gold. In the present, she has the toughness needed for an editor and a bit of a shell due to her painful past, but still retains her goodness and decency.
Her angelic alto easily batted all emotional pitches out of the park. Some of my favorite numbers of hers were the heart tugging “I Can’t Wait”; the tragic “Please, Don’t Take Him”; and “So Familiar/At Long Last” which had me shedding real tears by its end.
Jay Srygley is truly a good man as Jimmy Ray Dobbs. He loves his father, but disagrees with his pursuit of power. He is kind and honorable and his love for Alice is palpable. And, man alive, has Srygley got a youthful tenor. He also wields it well, whether it’s the toe tapping “Whoa, Mama”; pointedly arguing with his father in “Firmer Hand/Do Right”; or sadly pining for what might have been in “I Had a Vision”.
Matt Karasek is spot on as Billy Cane. Karasek has the drive of youth with Billy’s determination to make it as a writer and the folksy manners and politeness of a well brought up small town country boy. He also has a fine tenor voice best displayed in “Bright Star” where he dreams about making it big or making you laugh out loud when he drinks for the first time in “Another Round”.
The handling of the score by Jennifer Novak Haar and her band is nothing short of genius. Not only do they play it perfectly, but they infused some real soul into it. You won’t just hear the music. It’s going to reach inside of you and shake your soul. Jim Othuse has designed a, for him, surprisingly bare bones set. Bits of furniture and modest backgrounds slide and drop in to change locales from the magazine office to the simple home of the Canes and the occasional outlines of trees for a romp in the woods. Tim Burkhart & John Gibilisco supply subtle sounds that enhance the story while Julian Adair adds some wonderful choreography. Her dancers are always in step and on beat and two of the best numbers are the hoedown in “Whoa, Mama” and the rambunctious moves in “Another Round”. Lindsay Pape’s costumes always suit the characters and the times from Alice’s sunny yellow dress in her youth to Daddy Cane’s overalls and the three-piece suit indicating the wealth and power of Mayor Dobbs.
The cast seemed to be holding back just a bit, but I think that was due to having waited so long to perform. After the standing ovation they justly earned, I think the floodgates of their energies have been opened and they are really going to start turning up the heat.
I truly can’t say enough good things about this show. It’s beautifully acted and splendidly sung and you will lose yourself in it. Give this cast and crew its due and see it.
Bright Star runs at the Omaha Community Playhouse through Feb 13. Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm (bonus show at 6:30pm on Feb 13) both live and streaming. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased by calling 402-553-0800, visiting www.omahaplayhouse.com, or at the box office. The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.