A woman in a floral print dress and a wide-brimmed sunhat steps into the spotlight. She stands on the top step of a front porch. Her house is little more than a makeshift shack. The tympanic thrum of a banjo swells up behind her. When she begins to sing, we know that her accent will land in the American South, inflected somewhere between country and bluegrass. Thus begins Bright Star, a musical so lyrically uncomplicated, so literally worded, it seems calculated, and painstakingly so, for an eternal life in repertory theater. High schools everywhere can now put Godspell to rest.
We meet Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack) at two crucial stages in her life, as a small town girl who escapes Zebulon, N.C., and, alternately, as a revered literary editor many years later. Is it a coincidence that Zebulon was also the name of the grandfather on the 1970s TV series The Waltons? Bright Star inhabits the same morally puritanical universe. But that first song on the stoop is her older self reminiscing about the past. “If You Knew My Story” is meant to be enticing, to excite our interest in Alice’s history. But the lyrics aren’t narratively coherent. From verse one, “If you knew my story / You’d have a hard time / Believing me.” Verse two continues, “If you knew my story / My heaven and my hell / If you knew my story / You’d have a good story to tell.”
First, we wouldn’t believe her, and then, a few bars later we’d be telling her story — the same one we wouldn’t, just seconds earlier, believe. There’s something thrilling about listening to such plainspoken nonsense as the song leaps from one disconnected thought to the next. Last year, Cusack scored a Tony nomination for the role, and it’s easy to hear why. Both her precise characterization and voice, lovely as Trisha Yearwood’s at her most refined, provide Alice with clarity when the clichés she’s singing through do not.
The songs also spell out every plot point so that the audience knows exactly what to expect as the scenes advance. Of course she will fall in love with a man she cannot have. Of course the melodrama will only start from there. What’s unexpected in Bright Star is the recurring theme of Manifest Destiny. The musical insists that the protagonists all have a right to everything they’ve ever wanted. They may suffer pain and disappointment but gosh darn it, the sun is shining just for them. In fact, the message in “Sun’s Gonna Shine” isn’t very far removed from “Tomorrow” (Annie, 1977).
An idea like this generally originates from self-help gurus and avaricious politicians. Here the singer-songwriter Edie Brickell partnered with Steve Martin, the production’s éminence grise, to peddle optimism as a viable alternative to the wilted American Dream. Repeat your wish long and loud enough and it will be fulfilled. The title song provides a particularly egregious example of this kind of narcissism, “Bright star, keep shining for me, shine on and see me through.” Billy Cane (A.J. Shively) wants to be a famous writer. He served in the army and seems like a decent, if oblivious, guy. But why are we rooting for him? Because his inevitable girlfriend Margo (Maddie Shea Baldwin) believes in him, typing and editing his short stories instead of writing her own. Because we all want to believe we’re special enough, like Billy, to stand out in a crowd. Except that every single one of us does not and cannot, despite all that railing against the stars.
At its pastel-colored core, Bright Star celebrates straight, white heterosexual marriage. Martin and Brickell have invented a South where no racial tension exists because there are no Black people. This qualifies as the least diverse cast currently staged in the Bay Area. And then there’s the trouble with Daryl (Jeff Blumenkrantz). The late David Rakoff once described the token gay characters he played as “Fudgy McPackers.” Those men were variations on the pansy theme — quip-delivering, leering but neutered faggots. Fudgy’s main duty is to comment on the hero’s story, sarcastically. The McPackers of the theater world stand idly by while everyone else couples up around them. In Bright Star, audiences are treated with yet another acid-tongued, asexual homo.
Some uncynical souls might respond to all this willful, self-deluding optimism. At the end though, all the applause just sounded like the characters, and the songwriters, extending congratulations to themselves. Songs that are expertly, even exquisitely sung confer a momentary feeling of greatness upon them. But as the lyrics go in one ear and out the other, you may only remember the singer’s performance and her expressive, expansive voice.
Bright Star, through Dec. 17, at The Curran, 445 Geary St., 415-358-1220 or sfcurran.com