BY SANDY STAGGS
On the heels of the company’s rip-roaring Annie Get Your Gun, the Mill Town Players follow up in their sixth season with what truly may be their finest show to date, Bright Star written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell (remember the New Bohemians?).
This bluegrass-infused tale based on a true event is a bold and fresh (it’s a state premiere) display of storytelling deftly-presented with superb performances, an authentic live band, and the most gorgeous scenic design and painting (Will Ragland and Abby Brown) and lighting (Tony Penna) you may see all season…anywhere in the Upstate.
I recommend experiencing Bright Star completely cold without any research about the story. There are major plot twists and a third act reveal that are best left to feel in the moment. Thus, there will be no spoilers at all in this review. Experience Bright Star for yourself!
Seth Crawford (a soldier in real life) plays Billy Cane, a WWII soldier and budding writer who returns to his home and sweetheart, Margo (a perfectly delightful Kelsey Crews), in North Carolina. Margo is the biggest fan of his stories that he would send home while overseas and encourages him to work his craft until he gets published.
This leads to a chance meeting with Alice Murphy (Hannah Thompson, who I had the pleasure of seeing as Belle in South Carolina Children’s Theatre production of “Beauty and the Beast” a couple of seasons ago), a respected, hard-nosed editor of The Asheville Southern Journal and who only works with the South’s elite writers.
But Alice takes an interest in this untested country scribe and takes us on a journey back in time some 20-plus years to her youth in the rousing sentimental “If You Knew My Story.”
Confident and sarcastic as the adult Alice and wistful and emotionally-volatile as young Alice, Thompson radiates and perseveres between the two eras effortlessly, creating an undeniable investment in this character and a bond with the audience.
We learn of her first love Jimmy Ray Dobbs (John Mark Elliott) and his father’s dislike of her. Dad is Mayor Dobbs (MTP founder and Executive Artistic Director Ragland in his most villainous role ever) , a prominent and despicable businessman who wants his son to marry wealth, not a poor mountain gal, however bright she may be. “Marry conveniently in order to live well,” he insists.
The action moves back and forth from the 1920s to the 1940s as the two parallel romances thrive.
In the modern scenes, MTP regulars Aaron Pennington as Daryl and Hannah Morton as good-time Lucy work at the Journal office providing much-needed comic relief. And we finally get to experience the amazing Morton in the show’s only true dance number “Another Round,” a spirited drinking song about sloe gin fizzes and letting your hair down.
Other standouts include Mark Sung-Wiles playing double duty as the
Mayor’s personal attorney in one era and a hapless lovelorn nerdy
romantic in the 1940s.
And Rod McClendon shines, as always, as Billy’s compassionate father, Daddy Cane.
The score is packed with country and bluegrass gems like the optimistic “Bright Star,” Ragland’s rendition of “A Man’s Gotta Do,” Thompson’s transformation in “Way Back in the Day,” and the heartbreaking “Heartbreaker.”
The voices and music direction by Joshua Morton is absolutely on-point, on-pitch and flawless. But my favorite scene – credit director Mary Nickles, the genius behind the company’s Ring of Fire a few years ago – in this cohesive and gorgeous staging, is the imaginative blocking and ballet of sorts, closing out the end of the first act in “Please Don’t Take Him.” Brava, Mary! This staging blew me away!
Bright Star is also an ode to the South and our people with songs like “Asheville,” the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountain scenery, moonshine, and gentle pokes at our reliance on religion as the answer for all of life’s problems. Sometimes, the Bible just doesn’t oblige.
Bright Star continues through October 6 at the historic Pelzer Auditorium, 214 Lebby St. in Pelzer. Tickets are only $10-12 and available at www.milltownplayers.org or by calling (864) 947-8000.