Sara King, Tyler Bliss, and John Payonk (back) in Bright Star. Photo: DDP

Bright Star

Music, Book, and Story by Edie Brickell and Steve Martin 
Produced and Directed by Lee Buckholz 
Musical Direction by Scott Bradley 

A review by Tory Parker

Entire contents are copyright © 2022 by Tory Parker. All rights reserved.

“Steve Martin? Like SNL Steve Martin?” I heard a woman ask incredulously in the bathroom before the curtain rose on Bright Star at Derby Dinner Playhouse. Yes, believe it or not, this dazzling jewel box of a Broadway show is co-written by the same master of comedy that brought us King Tut. And while the show has funny moments, don’t go in expecting a string of Martin bits held together with banjo plucking. Bright Star is a rich and glistening tapestry of heartache, longing, history, and home brought to life with soaring musical numbers and an incredible cast of characters. 

Heroine Alice Murphy (Sara King), a beautiful woman of indeterminate age, introduces the show with the prologue, “If You Knew My Story.” From the opening number, King shines as Alice. This is a full cast and complicated story that jumps back and forth in time, but she guides it effortlessly—charming and sparkling, earnest but never saccharine, funny but never cartoonish. Her performance lifts every other actor on stage like a high tide.

The story alternates between Alice’s youth and her love affair with the mayor’s son, Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Tyler Bliss) in 1923 and her adulthood as the head of the Asheville Southern Journal in 1946. A young man, Billy Cane (Michael Evans) has just returned from war and has his heart set on being a writer, and with encouragement from the starry-eyed Margo (Cami Glauser), goes to Asheville to pitch his stories to Alice Murphy. Criss-crossing between time periods, both come of age until at last, they learn how they are, against all odds, intrinsically linked.

Bright Star is not a long-time classic or even a particularly well-known new musical. It began its run on Broadway in 2016 alongside the juggernaut that is Hamilton, as well as The Color Purple revival and the smash-hit Waitress, and had a hard time finding its own light. But it seems to be the perfect fit at Derby Dinner Playhouse. The show opens with The Footnotes singing songs from the beloved film, O Brother Where Art Thou?, which is the perfect palette-teaser for the delicious bluegrass-inspired Bright Star score. From there, the audience is on board, well-prepared for the outlandish and otherworldly (though hardly unfamiliar) nature of a folktale. 

At its core, Bright Star is a celebration of folk stories, Southern lore, and the melancholic nostalgia of those who come from the mountains. The story is inspired by the folk ballad “Iron Mountain Baby,” based on the life of William Moses Gould Helms, but reimagines the central character as the baby’s mother. The plot can be a bit complex and pushes forward like a steam engine, but that driving energy is well-paced and executed like clockwork. The ensemble seamlessly transitions us from the 20s to the 40s, from the sleepy small towns of rural North Carolina to the bustling downtown bars of post-war Asheville.

Alongside our main two couples are a cast of characters who help ground the ever-shifting timeline. Particularly delightful are Lucy (Taylor Thomas) and Daryl (Bobby Conte), who play the other Asheville Southern Journal employees. Bright Star plunges into surprisingly dark emotional depths (for what one might expect from a musical by a famous comedian) but Thomas and Conte make the perfect comedic relief duo. Between their dynamic and Thomas’ absolute knock-out performance in the 11 o’clock number, “Another Round,” the show makes good use of the talent it has packed into the cast. 

There is a striking difference between a “feel good” musical and a “feel everything” musical, and Bright Star is firmly an example of the latter. Like the South, like going home, like good bluegrass music, like hugging your mother goodbye, it will mend your heart as it breaks it, over and over again. And at the core of it all is a strong woman, with a good story, told beautifully.

Featuring Sara King, Michael Evans, Tyler Bliss, John Payonk, Cami Glauser, Taylor Thomas, Bobby Conte, Matthew Brennan, Clay Smith, Elizabeth Loos, Tony Milder, Trent Wong, Jesse Barfield, Kathleen Meyer, Brittany Carricato Cox, Katelyn Webb, Tracey Hammon-Hodge, Tonilyn Hussey, Paul McElroy, Chap Hollin, & Clayton Bliss 

Bright Star

August 25 – October 2, 2022

Derby Dinner Playhouse
525 Marriott Drive
Clarksville, IN 47129

Tory Parker is originally from West Virginia, graduated from Centre College, and now works in marketing at the Waterfront Botanical Gardens. In Louisville, she’s worked and performed with Claddagh Theatre Company, the Chamber Theatre, Bellarmine University, Wayward Actors Company, Derby City Playwrights, Company Outcast and director Emily Grimany. As a playwright, her original works appeared in the National Women’s Theatre Festival in their 2020 and 2021 Fringe Festivals.