Blackbird and Bright Star on Broadway

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At the curtain call of Blackbird, starring Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels, both actors look exhausted and spent, Jeff Daniels especially. Why? What happens during this 75 minute two person play?

A  strange reunion is initiated by Una, played by Michelle Williams, as she visits and then confronts Ray (Jeff Daniels) about his sexual abuse levied upon her when she was 12 years old. The abuse turned into a taboo obsession, as they had run off together, and he abandoned her in a motel. He was arrested, served time, and when released, changed his name and his life. Shaken by her appearing at his job, he is stunned. But now as an adult,  as she questions him about what happened, at times he answers her somewhat matter-of-factly, and we see how his sometimes nonchalant response and her tortured adult life are completely at odds.

Blackbird and Bright Star on Broadway

Credit: Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels in Blackbird Photo credit: Brigitte Lacombe

At the end, following a very static story arc, Una is both repelled and attracted to him, and calls his name in desperation as he leaves her in the cold conference room where the often very uncomfortable dialogue takes place.

Blackbird, written by Olivier Award winning writer David Harrower, is a tour de force for the actors, for sure, but not necessarily one for the audience.

At times, the endless dialogue, often staccato with the convention of using only sentence fragments, becomes somewhat monotonous, and the harsh, harsh fluorescent lighting very hard on the eyes. It was so bright, a good portion of the front of the orchestra was almost lit.

I wish I could say Blackbird stayed with me and haunted me, given the subject matter, but I was just
hoping it would end soon. Directed by Joe Mantello, Blackbird runs through June 11 at the gorgeously lush Belasco Theatre.
*****
The opposite happened with Bright Star. It actually grew on me minute by minute. You have to stay with it. Even if bluegrass roots music is not your thing, it will be by the end of the Steve Martin-Edie Brickell musical.
An improbable story, inspired by an actual incident Ms. Brickell read about one day, Bright Star
intersects two lives in a most dramatic way. The story takes place in 1945 and 1946 as well as 22 years earlier, sometimes the action taking place simultaneously. But it’s not confusing. It’s very clear how everything unfolds.

A young girl, Alice Murphy, raised by strict parents, falls in love with the wealthy son of their town’s mayor. When a pregnancy occurs, she agrees to go to a cabin in the woods to bear her child. A deal is struck to remove the child for adoption (very much against Alice’s will,) and a dastardly act occurs.

We also meet a young man back from the war, enamored by writing, with the hunger to go to the big city of Asheville to write for the town’s paper. There he meets the no-nonsense, all-business editor of the paper. A connection is made and the journey of Bright Star begins. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away because it really must unfold for the audience in an organic way. The twist of the plot is quite obvious, but nonetheless the stunning emotional fabric of the piece is still very authentic ferrying  the audience along on the journey. From polite clapping, to more enthusiastic applause, by the second act, there is an energy shift, and the audience is clearly on board for the ride. Great performances are given by principals Paul Alexander Nolan, A.J. Shively, Hannah Elless, Michael Mulheren, Stephen Bogardus, Dee Hoty, Stephen Lee Anderson, Emily Padgett and Jeff Blumenkrantz. But Carmen Cusack as Alice Murphy, making her Broadway debut, is simply outstanding with an amazing voice and terrific acting. She alone is reason enough to see this sweet and subtle musical.

Blackbird and Bright Star on Broadway

Credit: Carmen Cusack and Paul Alexander Nolan in Bright Star Photo credit: Nick Stokes

Directed by Walter Bobbie and choreographed by Josh Rhodes, Bright Star’s engagement with the audience goes from a simmer to a vigorous boil.

The set is inventive, placing the excellent orchestra in a wooden structure plopped in the middle of the action, and moved as needed. The weaving of essential music and story makes so much sense.

By the top of the second act, when the musicians are given their own time to shine and perform a musical piece, the audience goes wild with appreciation.

I liked Bright Star alot, but worry that it is difficult to market. Give it a chance. You will be glad you did.

 

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