- Associated Press - Thursday, March 24, 2016

NEW YORK (AP) - The new Broadway musical “Bright Star” starts with a bit of bluster, maybe even some swagger.

“If you knew my story, you’d have a good story to tell,” the leading lady sings.

But after 2½ hours of this down-home hokum, the answer is clear: No, we don’t.

Comedian and banjo enthusiast Steve Martin has teamed up with singer-songwriter Edie Brickell to write a cliche-ridden, foot-pounding, over-eager Southern Gothic romance that ill serves a wonderful Broadway debut in Carmen Cusack.

The show that opened Thursday at the Cort Theatre never hits an honest note and seems to have been written by two people who adore classic Broadway musicals but who have intentionally decided to make a third-rate version.

The music, with a few exceptions, is weak, with few of the songs fully fleshed out and some having been recycled from the pair’s previous CDs. It takes five songs until the audience is finally roused with “Whoa, Mama.”

Act One ends with an unspeakable act made worse by one of the lousiest special effects in Broadway history. (And while we’re at it, can we scrap the pathetic toy train that makes three appearances, huffing and puffing?)

The book and lyrics are even more feeble, with graceless lines like “I’m ready for my life to begin!” and “I knew this day would come” and weird characters, like a sexed-up assistant at a literary journal who dreams of one day censoring writers. Director Walter Bobbie gets everything out of his cast and keeps a frenetic pace going but for no clear payoff.

The story, set in small-town North Carolina, switches between the mid-1920s and the mid-1940s to tell the tale of two sets of lovers entwined by a secret. Except the secret is obvious. No one in the audience is gasping at the end during the big reveal. Even the actors seem to shrug.

This is a weird sort of South that only exists in the daydreams of other musicals. This is a South with overalls and suspenders, moonshine, stolen kisses by the river and where pretty dresses in boxes are a reason to stop everything and gasp gleefully. Everyone is white. Everyone.

Cusack plays Alice Murphy, the heart of the story. She is strong and pours everything she has into an odd role. As a teen, Alice is bright, articulate and reads F. Scott Fitzgerald for fun, but yet is apparently the black sheep of the family. (“You ever think you might be too smart for this town?” someone asks her in dialogue that is violently unnecessary.)

At 16, she falls in love with the son of a rich man. And guess what? He loves her back. And he’s pretty smart and great, too. (Paul Alexander Nolan, absolutely charming). Their parents try to separate them and so she, naturally, moves away and becomes the editor of an important Southern literary magazine.

The other relationship is between a young writer (a strong A.J. Shively) and a bookshop owner (adorably goofy Hannah Elless). There are also loads of quirky folk at the journal and the bookstore. (One farmer who goes frog gigging at night also confesses to enjoying a good literary journal.) It seems like everyone in this musical is bookish and smart, like everyone we guess in Steve Martin’s world.

The show, so long exploring lost love, then descends into virtual farce before ending on such a forced happy note and with such swiftness that it’ll knock the corndog out of your hand.

An attempt to make sense of it all is fumbled: “I understood that truth seeks us out - then walks beside us like a shadow, and one day it merges with us,” one character says. One preview audience wasn’t sure if this wasn’t a joke and laughed. In any case, the joke is on us.


Follow Mark Kennedy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/KennedyTwits

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