Written by: Steve Martin and Edie Brickell
Directed by: Stanford Reynolds
Te Auaha, 17th Nov 2023
Reviewed by: Miya Dawson
A talented literary editor with a story of her own to tell. A mayor’s son taking a different path than his father. A young soldier trying to make his mark on the world by “following his own bright star”. These characters and a vibrant bluegrass score are the main ingredients of Bright Star, a musical set in North Carolina in the 1920s to 1940s.
Billy Cane (Fynn Bodley-Davies) has just returned from World War II to his small southern hometown and dreams of writing for the Asheville Southern Journal, publisher of the best short stories from miles around. Editor Alice Murphy (Cassandra Tse) takes him on, impressed by his spirit and quick thinking if not his writing skills. What the pair don’t yet know is that hidden in Alice’s past is a secret about to change both of their lives.
This Wellington Footlights Society production is set to a live band playing bluegrass music, an energetic string-based genre with influences of jazz and blues. The man behind me in the queue beforehand said, “there better be a banjo,” and we were not disappointed. With the band and musical direction from Michael Stebbings behind them, the talented singers shine. Tse and Chris McMillan as Alice's love interest Jimmy Ray Dobbs stand out with their solos, and a surprise favourite is Billy’s hillbilly father Daddy Cane (Vishan Appanna), who has one beautiful duet with his son and hops around after frogs in the river for the rest of the play.
The set (concept and coordination by director Stanford Reynolds) and lighting (design and operation by Tom Smith and Lucas Zaner) are simple yet effective, creating a new mood for each scene with bright yellow light for party songs and darker, individual spotlights in more emotional, personal moments. The chorus rearranges a small collection of benches and chairs between scenes. I did feel that more could be made of the projector screen behind the stage, which is lit up quite sporadically throughout.
All in all, Bright Star is heartfelt, infectious, and made me cry several times – an unexpected must-see.