Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Bright Star
Zao Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's recent review of Big Fish

Jordan Giannetti and Juli Buehrle
Photo by Kristy Velesko
It's great that two shows that didn't have long Broadway runs but that have great stories, endearing characters, and rich musical scores are currently receiving wonderful productions in town. A charming production of Big Fish at Grand Canyon University runs through this weekend and, with exceptional leads and perfect direction, Zao Theatre's production of Bright Star, running through April 15, is extremely moving.

Nominated for five Tony Awards including Best Musical and with a score composed mainly of folk and bluegrass songs, Bright Star is set in small towns in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina in the mid-1940s with flashbacks to 1923. The plot focuses on two characters whose stories interweave. Billy Cane has just returned home from serving in WWII and decides to follow his dreams to be a writer. When he moves from his small hometown to the big city of Asheville, he immediately meets Alice Murphy, who is the editor of the Asheville Southern Journal, and hopes to sell her one of the stories he has written. In a series of flashbacks, we see the events in Alice's past and how the once free-spirited young woman became the prickly, no-nonsense woman Billy meets.

The musical is the work of famous comedian Steve Martin (music and book) and pop singer Edie Brickell (music lyrics), who had the hit song, "What I Am." While this is the first musical the two have written, they previously joined forces on a bluegrass album and Martin has written several plays. Their work here is wonderful with a moving score that works well to flesh out the characters and the plot with a mixture of banjo-infused bluegrass and folk numbers that fit perfectly into the time and setting of the show.

While there are some melodramatic moments and a touch of predicability in the plot, Martin's book, which expands on a true story and folksong, does an excellent job moving back and forth in time and alternating between Alice's past and Billy's present, fleshing out the main characters as well as several supporting ones fairly well. The way the musical alternates between Alice and Billy's stories and moves between the two time periods pulls the audience into the story and holds attention. It's funny in spots while also having moments that are incredibly moving. This is the third time I've seen the musical and even knowing the twists and surprises in the story I was still in tears at the end, as were many people around me, which is due to how well-crated the musical is and also due to the wonderful work done by director Michael E. Bryce and his leads.

As Alice Murphy, Juli Buehrle is exceptional and doesn't make one false move. With well thought out line delivery and perfect facial expressions and body language, she expertly portrays Alice as both a somewhat emotionless, grown-up woman and a carefree teenager. Buehrle's singing voice is bright and clear and soars while also bringing an abundance of emotion and layers to Alice. It's a terrific performance.

Scotty Hagen is wonderful as Billy Cane. He is endearing, lovable, charming, and even goofy at times, which fleshes Billy out and draws us in to see him succeed, both personally and professionally. Hagen's singing voice is warm and works well on his several songs. As Jimmy Ray Dobbs, the man Alice falls for when she is a teenager, Jordan Giannetti is equally as good and does a great job showing the conflicted moments in the character's past. Both Giannetti and Buehrle are exceptional in showing the pain and anger their characters face due to actions others make. They have wonderful chemistry with each other, which makes the relationship between these somewhat mismatched characters believable.

As Mayor Josiah Dobbs, Jimmy Ray's father, Bryan Stewart brings a deep, powerful singing voice to his songs and creates a fairly fleshed-out character out of this slightly two-dimensional villain as written. As Margo, the girl from Billy's past who has feelings for him, Calli Rasmussen is bright and spunky with a lovely singing voice. Rebecca Bryce and Benjermin Tietz have great comic timing as Lucy and Daryl, two people who work for Alice; Matt Snell and Randi Jill Condit are great as Alice's parents, who have to deal with challenges they aren't exactly prepared for; and Fred Gerle is bright and charming as Billy's father. Also, Gage Vaughn adds some nice touches of humor as Max, and the large ensemble cast do well playing numerous roles and delivering some beautiful harmonies.

Michael E. Bryce's direction makes fairly good use of the large Zao stage, with some scenes taking place on the side aprons and in the front center aisle. The transitions between times are done seamlessly and the scene changes are quite brisk. His scenic design uses various wood elements and smaller pieces that are moved and rearranged to form various settings, although the center scenic element, a flat door frame that is always present and is moved around throughout the show, could be clearer as far as what it's supposed to portray. Ashley Harkey's choreography is bright, fun, and danced well by the cast. The costumes by Brianne Gobeski and Sarai Phillips-Dunlap are period and character perfect with nice uses of fabric and patterns, and the lighting by Bryce and Sharyn Sheffer works quite well to depict the various times of day in the show. Bryce also created the projections which use archival photos and images to help flesh out the various locales in the show.

With a plot that will make you laugh and also make you cry as it covers a wide range of characters and emotions, Bright Star is a beautiful story about forgiveness, guilt, coming to terms with the past, and redemption. With exceptional performances, Zao Theatre's production is excellent.

Bright Star runs through April 15, 2023, at Zao Theatre, 6338 South King Ranch Rd, Gold Canyon AZ. For information and tickets, please visit or call 480-924-5122

Director/Scenic & Media Design: Michael E. Bryce
Choreographer: Ashley Harkey
Lighting Design: Michael E. Bryce / Sharyn Sheffer
Sound Design: John Schoenwolf
Costume Design: Brianne Gobeski, Sarai Phillips-Dunlap

Cast (in order of appearance)
Alice Murphy: Juli Buehrle
Billy Cane: Scotty Hagen
Daddy Cane: Fred Gerle
Margo Crawford: Calli Rasmussen
Max/Ensemble: Gage Vaughn
Florence/Spirits/Ensemble: Heaven Blaker
Edna/Ensemble: Punawai Tietz
Daryl Ames: Benjermin Tietz
Lucy Grant: Rebecca Bryce
Mama Murphy: Randi Jill Condit
Daddy Murphy: Matt Snell
Mayor Josiah Dobbs: Bryan Stewart
Jimmy Ray Dobbs: Jordan Giannetti
Stanford/Ensemble: Stacey Blake
Dr. Norquist/Ensemble: Don Tepley
Stationmaster/Ensemble: Turner McKenzie
Kate/Ensemble: Sarai Phillips-Dunlap
Well Dressed Woman/Ensemble: Dawn Gunderson
Young People/Ensemble: Olivia Kesner. Molly Kesner
Spirits/Ensemble: Abbeney Preston, Jennifer Webb
Ensemble: Tanner Duncan