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Bright Star review at the Cort Theatre, New York – ‘tuneful but farfetched’

The cast of Bright Star at Cort Theatre, New York. The cast of Bright Star at Cort Theatre, New York.

After collaborating on two bluegrass albums, Steve Martin and singer-songwriter Edie Brickell, two celebrated Texas-born talents, decided to create a musical around the songs.  The result is Bright Star, a tuneful, well-performed display of American roots music, which has opened on Broadway at the Cort – one of several fiddle-driven musicals on New York stages this season. Its sweet score makes up for the preposterous if occasionally moving story into which the 19 (mostly newly written) original songs have been fitted.

The marketing for Bright Star claims that it is “inspired by a real event,” but this is at best misleading. In 1902, a baby was found alive in a valise near some railroad tracks, apparently having been thrown out the window of a moving train. Martin and Brickell conjure up an entirely fictional plot that incorporates this incident in an implausible way that I won’t spoil. The show begins realistically enough with parallel stories, one involving a returning World War II veteran and aspiring writer who submits his work to tough literary magazine editor Alice (stand-out Carmen Cusack, making her Broadway debut), and the other 20 years earlier when Alice was 16 and in a doomed love affair.  Near the end of Act I,  this straightforward if complicated plot starts to merge, taking turns so improbable (and yet so predictable) that Bright Star becomes akin to a folk tale, or maybe a silent movie melodrama.

The old Steve Martin, who launched his career as a banjo-picking stand-up comic partial to wearing arrows through his head,  would certainly have presented the leaps in logic with lots of winks. There are, to be sure, traces of Martin’s old wit in the script – a book store customer returns a thesaurus because “he thought it was a book about dinosaurs.” But Bright Star largely insists on the earnest, sentimental tone of an old-fashioned musical.

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Steve Martin and Edie Brickell's musical has a lovely bluegrass score but a laughably farfetched plot, delivered earnestly