CD Review: BRIGHT STAR (Original Broadway Cast on Ghostlight Records)

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by Frank Arthur on June 15, 2016



Set in North Carolina, Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s Broadway outing, Bright Star, interweaves the stories of two ill-starred couples, one in the 1920s and one in the 1940s. The cast album, released last month, highlights why the show has both a large fan base and detractors. The stories, as the cast album makes clear, revolve around the aftermath of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, but the musical expands to document the characters’ ambitions, which range from simple family bliss to a desire to make literary history.

The tale in Bright Star was developed by Martin and Brickell after they collaborated on their 2013 bluegrass music CD, Love Has Come for You. The show’s origins elucidate how these invigorating songsmiths naïvely got in their own way: they began working on songs together before a libretto was in place. For the most part, they both composed the music (I’ve seen the awesome banjo-picking Martin perform live, so it doesn’t surprise that the sweetly melodic music sounds wholly authentic) and Brickell handles the lyrics. The 18 songs are refreshingly chockablock with exposition, but the warmhearted simplicity of the melodies lacks the spark of originality. Some of the garrulous lyrics repeat the plot’s dramatic content without opening up and developing the characters, whose embellished twangs on this Ghostlight Records release make them sound a little cartoonishly hillbilly.

Even with the joyful and authentic backwoods orchestrations by August Eriksmoen, only a few songs are standalone pieces—it’s a workable score given the material’s North Carolina setting, but there is no snap-to-attention innovation in lyrics or music, as was heard in Adam Guettel’s Floyd Collins. And this may not be an issue for some, but the imperfect rhyme scheme (“sweater” with “together”)—while fitting for bluegrass—can inadvertently make it even more difficult to get into the song. And expect a whole lotta choruses, which makes the songs sound repetitive, like the upbeat (and endless) “Sun is Gonna Shine” that sums up the show’s persevering hopefulness.

Still, this impeccably produced original cast recording beautifully manifests the Appalachian flavor and many locales within the Blue Ridge Mountains circa 1922-1946. Some songs fit time, place, story, and character beautifully: The foot-stomping “Firmer Hand/Do Right” establishes the conflicting personalities of a staunchly religious father and his no-nonsense daughter; the optimistically repetitive strain of “Sun is Gonna Shine,” while endless, is pleasingly catchy—even with its unmemorable lyrics. Also effective is “Another Round,” which evokes sympathy and laughter as a character drowns her sorrows in alcohol. Other songs may have you under a bluegrass spell, but it may bear repeated listenings to get on board. The album comes with a booklet that includes a synopsis of the story by Bill Rosenfield, complete lyrics, and notes from Brickell, Martin, Rosenfield and album producer and music supervisor Peter Asher.

Bright Star
Ghostlight Records
23 tracks | 61:12
release date: May 27, 2016
available at Ghostlight, iTunes, and Amazon

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