Bright Star Shines Bright as DalekoArts' Swan Song
A love affair that began a year ago has come to an end. It was for DalekoArts’ spring musical in 2022, Once, that I finally made my way down to New Prague, a little theatre on Main Street. It’s small unassuming theater in a sleepy little town that by all rights, shouldn’t have been even half as good as it was. Me? I was a wide-eyed blogger just getting my theatre legs back after a worldwide pandemic. When the house lights went down and the stage lights went up, seemly dozens upon dozens of musicians took to the 15 X 15 foot stage and made beautiful music. There was no “Falling Slowly” about it, I fell hard and fast. Before I knew it I was trying to work a second show into my busy schedule. Fate, that cruel organizer of near misses, conspired between a sell out show and a case of Covid to keep us apart. It wouldn’t be until fall when I made it down for their next production and every production onward, except for White Chrismith. How naive I was, thinking we had all the time world that there would be plenty of shows in our future. But alas, DalekoArts, thou hast cleft my heart in twain. After 11 seasons the founders of DalekoArts have decided it’s time to take on new challenges and pursue new adventures. 11 seasons, and they were right there but didn’t know about them until 2022. Of course by “right there” I mean about an hour south of the Cities. 11 years but only one year in my orbit. In that small time, mostly greatly shone this Bright Star of New Prague. DalekoArts will always be the one that got away. But as the man says, if you gotta go, go out with a bang. I’m thrilled to report that DalekoArts remained true to the last, and while the first kiss lasts forever, there is still witchcraft in Daleko’s lips.
This was not my first exposure to Bright Star, I had seen the production Lyric Arts in Anoka mounted in the fall of 2019, in fact it was the second review I ever wrote for what was at the time called Stages of the Twin Cities. The show written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell is inspired by a true story. You can Google Iron Mountain Baby and read the Wikipedia page to learn about the true story that inspired the plot of this musical. But, I encourage you to do so after enjoying the show. The story follows two tracks, one set in 1945 after the end of WWII and one in flashback to 1923. The show opens in 1946 with Alice Murphy, a publisher in Asheville North Carolina singing “If You Knew My Story”. It’s sets the stage that this is Alice’s story which we’ll see told through flashbacks. It also introduces us to the the style of music that the musical utilizes which is bluegrass. The 1940’s story begins with young Billy Cane who has returned home from the war, set on pursuing a career as a writer. He’s encouraged by his friend and wanna be best girl, Margo, who has been reading the stories he’s sent her. Billy learns upon reaching home that while he was away his Mother passed away. The show balances it’s plot on these moments of joy and optimism followed by incidents that temper the joy. This happens again and again throughout the plot and in that way, the story mirrors the feel of the bluegrass music that is underscoring it. The music can be very rousing and upbeat but it can also have a beautiful melancholy aspect to it. It’s sorrowful without being depressing or downbeat. Billy, who had always been timid about his writing, realized when he was knee deep in the mud wondering if he would survive the war, if he did, he was going to follow his own “Bright Star”. So he heads to Asheville to try and get Alice Murphy to publish his stories in her magazine The Asheville Southern Journal. She agrees to read his stories. In a conversation with her two employees Daryl and Lucy, who try and convince her to come out with them after work, she comments that she did always used to be so no-nonsense. This leads into the flashback to 1923 and her love story with Jimmy Ray Dobbs. Again, we have the young Billy who was reticent to engage with the world, choosing to go out and try and get what he wants from life. Meanwhile Alice who used to be outgoing and joyful, now appears to focus entirely on work. The parallels between the characters and the light and dark moments are intentional and it makes for intriguing characters and an engrossing story. The songs with little if any exceptions are fantastic. I’m not a bluegrass aficionado, but I’ve had this album in my rotation regularly since I saw that production at Lyric Arts. There are some really powerful scenes as the play progresses but I don’t want to rob them of that power, so I’m going to keep those plot points to myself.
The cast is just fantastic, from the moment Ruthie Baker came out as Alice Murphy and launched into “If You Knew My Story” it was clear they had found a performer who could do the vocalizations justice. Baker is most fitting in the role during the 1945 period. When she is playing the 1920’s aged Alice she leans a little to much into the young giddy teenager, most of the time it’s fine, but there are a couple of moments that just go a little too broad. When the darkness comes in 1923, she brings the pain handling some really difficult emotional scenes brilliantly. Equally wonderful is Daniel Greco who plays her love interest Jimmy Ray Dobbs. Greco as with Baker is clearly a gifted vocalist and he also gets a couple of moments, one in 1924 and one in 1945 to show that he has the dramatic chops to go with the voice. Jake S. Nelson as Billy Cane and Abby Holmstrom as Margo, make a cute match, they both deliver everything you could want and they make the most of a slightly underwritten love story, managing to provide a moving climax to that thread of the story. Other favorites among the cast were Grant Hooyer as Daryl and Amanda Mai as Lucy, they get some fun comic relief moments and a fun song in “Another Round”. Ryan Lee as Billy’s Daddy. Warren R. Sampson as Jimmy Ray’s Daddy, and Luke Aaron Davidson as Alice’s Daddy all do wonderful work, with each getting a moment to showcase a moment of gravitas. Lee even gets to help out the band part of the time on his guitar as does ensemble player Nora Sonneborn on an instrument to be named later.
The production is directed by one of DalekoArts’ founders Amanda White. This stage is not really 15 X15 as I joked earlier, it’s actually a bit smaller. Seriously though, it’s a small stage and as with Once last spring, they have a fairly sizable cast. White and her Choreographer Kyle Weiler have done some really interesting work to keep the size of the space from impeding the production. They have gone for a more representation approach, chairs spaced to represent the train car. a cast member sitting in a chair to represent Billy’s mothers grave and the angel statue his father placed at it. The actress has movement during that particular scene, it isn’t meant to represent reality is an impressionistic interpretation that is meant to suggest the physical world while also acknowledging the emotional undercurrent and mood of the moment. They have really done some interesting things with movement, there is a sense that in some ways as we enter the 1920’s flashback that elements of physicality among the performers are meant to emphasize the fact that this is a memory and as such there are almost dreamlike aspects to certain transitions. It’s a really interesting and successfully executed approach. Bradley A. Beahen is the Musical Director and he and his band are up in the loft playing, they are fantastic and my only criticism is that we cannot see them playing, Bluegrass, just seems like the kind of music you want to see the musicians playing the instruments. Robin McIntyre Scenic Design utilizes the space surprisingly well, giving us two upper level platforms that some scenes are performed on to add a little visual freshness. Everything is constructed with bare wood which gives it somehow and first half of the 20th Century bluegrass feel to it.
Bright Star runs through May 21st it’s also basically sold out, but you can get on the waitlist for cancellations. Bright Star is a worthy final bow for this theater and its passionate crew. You enriched our lives, and for that we are grateful. We will cherish the memories you gave us and mourn your loss. It’s OK to take a moment and grieve but, we cannot rest for long, our theatres are under siege on multiple fronts. And so, we cannot sit at home and wallow in lost loves, we have to get back out there and find new theatre’s and support them. Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!
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Photo by Dan Norman