Steve Martin got famous as a stand-up comic, but in truth, he's a Renaissance man.
You're probably aware of his 70-or-so television appearances (not counting talk shows), more than 50 films, 10-plus books, 10 albums, and seven stage productions. Starting at age 23, he's earned many awards, including nominations and wins for Emmys, Grammys, and Tonys, plus a 2013 honorary Oscar for his entire oeuvre. His recent projects include the audiobook So Many Steves, released in May, and Hulu's third season of Only Murders in the Building, which premieres this week. And long before all those achievements, he taught himself the banjo.
The 2014 bluegrass musical Bright Star is one product of his 10-year collaboration with musician, singer, and writer Edie Brickell, formerly with New Bohemians. (They're not married; her husband is Paul Simon, and his wife is writer Anne Stringfield.) Brickell and Martin wrote the music, with lyrics by Brickell and book by Martin. Happily, it's now at the Timber Lake Playhouse – and the show is a slight departure from the venue's typical fare. It has a true event as its seed, but sprouts and blooms into a captivating story with the aid of uniformly superlative performers, led by director/choreographer Amy Marie McCleary and music director Oliver Townsend.
Bright Star's action bounces between 1945 and 1923, and starts with young Billy Cane (played by no-doubt-rising star Keaton Miller) returning after the war to his small Blue Ridge Mountains town. He's an affable lad, and an aspiring writer. Olivia De Jager, a strong, lovely actor with a colossal voice, plays his childhood friend and shy smitten kitten Margo. Jim Blanchette, as Daddy Cane, struck me with his nuanced, heartfelt portrayals of delight and sorrow, all with a simple, slightly awkward demeanor. (The program gave me a peek at Blanchette's voluminous resume – plus, he's an Actors Equity member, so … . Yeah.)
A few hundred miles away, Alice (Isabella Andrews) is the work-driven editor of a Southern literary journal. However, we learn that back in the day, Alice was a fun-loving filly, catching all the woo that Bryant Howard's Jimmy Ray could pitch. (Howard, a recent music-theatre graduate, is quite appealing in the role.) Years later, will Andrews' editor and Miller's writer Billy Cane collide? Why, yes, they will!
With Annika Rudolph as Lucy and Josh Medina as Darryl, the editor's underlings and occasional foils who make an entertaining and amusing pair, Bright Star has humor as well as drama. But I assure you there are no Slavic, wannabe-pick-up-artist brothers, or anything else you associate with Martin's legendary comedy career. In one scene, the actors perform a cute, rapid rewind/replay effect (and this musical debuted before Hamilton). There are quick jokes with vaudeville/Borscht-Belt energy, but rather than fouling the air with odors of ham or corn, this slick, talented cast nonchalantly makes them work.
Andrews, in the mature-editor portions of her story, kills in many of Bright Star's funniest moments as she launches her acerbic observations deadpan, burning whomever happens to be around, and she is just as fine (if not as funny) as the young, rebellious Alice. Andrews' joyous final number on Thursday night was stunningly powerful, and made Alice's life story resonate profoundly. The audience started applauding before she finished her final note, but it took me a few moments to join them, as I was crying and too astounded to move.
Speaking of singing, I want to praise the music director and cast for employing straight-tone singing with minimal vibrato. I'm fine with the theatrical convention of characters singing and dancing. However, it pulls me out of the story when regular folks who speak casually suddenly sing like Callas or Pavarotti, with vibrato a-blazin'. Vibrato happens naturally while singing. But for me, forced wavering pitches on every note overpower a song's intent. It makes me think the performers are trying to impress their voice teachers rather than concentrating on playing roles.
On the other hand, in McCleary's show, the occasional head-voice-to-chest-voice yodels sound authentic and enhance the performances, and the 10-member band flanking the stage are beyond fantastic. I love bluegrass, and here, the fiddle, mandolin, guitar, accordion, and whole caboodle elevate "feel-good" to the stratosphere.
Scenic designer Dan Danielowski (also Timber Lake's executive director) and his crew provided two large, versatile set pieces that served as different locations as needed. Actors deftly rolled crates and furniture on and off, and director McCleary exploited the revolving stage very neatly in the story. Costume designer Maya Faye Gordon gave the cast's wardrobe a muted, faded-photograph feel; and when occasional outfit had brightly saturated colors, there was a reason.
At Thursday's opening-night performance, during the grimmest, most upsetting scene in the show, a critical prop fell apart in an unfortunately hilarious manner. But Timber Lake's Bright Star pros carried on without breaking character, and I'd expect no less. Steve Martin's 78th birthday is on August 14. I suggest you celebrate it early with this rich, exuberant evening of theatre.
Bright Star runs at the Timber Lake Playhouse (8215 Black Oak Road, Mt. Carroll IL) through August 13, and more information and tickets are available by calling (815)244-2035 and visiting TimberLakePlayhouse.org.