By Erik Jonathan Shuler (@ErikJShuler)
Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s latest musical creation, Bright Star, which opened on Broadway in late March, presents a sweeping tale that stretches across that mountainous landscape of North Carolina. It spans decades as its story of pain and redemption unfolds. The epic musical, which boasts a beautiful, full-bodied staging by Tony-winning director Walter Bobbie, shares this story with little of its poignant message missed by the music on the Bright Star Original Cast Recording by Ghostlight Records.
The lyrics, by Brickell, are simple and straightforward but contain a melodic line in themselves. They serve as an effective narrative throughout the album, requiring little dialogue to convey plot. The music maintains the beautiful bluegrass notes particular to the culture of the piece (enhanced by the sensible and skillful hands of Steve Martin, master banjo player) hile presenting itself in an honest and iconic Broadway style. The simple band of strings and percussion, which is physically incorporated into the staging of the piece, remains active in the recording and generates a lively and personal environment.
Carman Cusack, whose Broadway debut in the piece is an astonishing revelation of empathetic investment, is a stand-out on each of her featured tracks. The opening, “If You Knew My Story,” is an ingeniously crafted prologue (a thoughtful nod to Brickell), and serves well as an introduction to Cusack’s impassioned phrasing. An intelligently trained singer who knows how to manipulate her voice for the stage, she isn’t hindered in the studio and she allows her rich vocal tone to float effortlessly and honestly across the score. She pours her heart out through the show-stopping “Way Back in the Day,” impresses with her delicate runs and powerful belt in “Please, Don’t Take Him,” and showcases the range of her voice with “At Long Last,” which verges on the border of bluegrass and gospel, and showcases Cusack’s chameleon-like store of talents. The album, if nothing else, serves as a necessary catalogue of her work in the piece.
“Asheville,” a thoughtful ballad which definitively embodies the “storytelling” musical style, could serve as a stand-alone single. Hannah Elless lends her effortless and clear voice to the track, as well as a soft duet, “Always Will,” proving that there is complexity in simplicity. She conveys her understanding of the character and her story through the text of the songs, and mirrors Cusack’s “If You Knew My Story” through her own lens. Emily Padgett has a brief but fulfilling moment to shine with her rousing tavern anthem, “Another Round,” stirring a contrasting wealth of emotions, bringing levity to the heavy piece.
While the women’s talents rightfully dominate the album, the men of Bright Star leave their mark. Paul Alexander Nolan, whose voice is one of the show’s most treasured assets, unleashes a very different, tortured darkness in “Heartbreaker.” The tune, which cuts the piece with a rougher style, is produced to such a well-crafted end through the careful commitment of Nolan. Michael Mulheren, whose songs provide a significant portion of the plot, does a good job of telling his story without compromising the musicality of the piece. A.J. Shively’s voice is a joy, dancing through the tracks of the album. Responsible for the empowerment behind the title track, Shively maintains a “happy-go-lucky” source of positivity, which the show’s other characters feed off of, even through the recording.
Bright Star lays out a loaded task for itself, which is accomplished with exciting success on the original Broadway cast recording. The show, which begs the importance and influence of good and truthful storytelling, shares a beautiful story through the recording of its music and lyrics. The original work of Steve Martin and Edie Brickell benefits from the loving care of Carmen Cusack and the rest of the cast and band who clearly treasure it so dearly.
For more about the Bright Star original cast album, click here.