Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre’s outdoor production of Bright Star is an entertaining musical romp. Set in small-town North Carolina during 1945 and ’46, with flashbacks to 1923, the musical, written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, has a strong bluegrass feel. Director Jerry Vess and Music Director/Conductor Paige Rammelkamp add to this atmosphere with the music and country-style dancing.
Emily L. Sergo dominates the stage as Alice, newspaper editor in the present and rebel in the flashbacks. Her opening number, “If You Knew My Story,” is filled with passion and wistfulness for what happened in her life. As editor, she is serious yet quick-witted, making corrections to Billy’s (Jake Schwartz) stories and calling him on his letter of recommendation. She gives a powerful performance in “Please, Don’t Take Him,” pleading for the men not to make a major decision about her. She fills “I Had a Vision” with heartbreaking emotion for what might have been.
Jake Schwartz gives an innocence and determination as Billy, returned to his small-town after World War II, determined to be a writer. He fills “Bright Star” with hope and yearning. When his opportunity comes, he leaps in the air with joy. His first song with Daddy Cane (Dave Robinson) is quietly emotional, while “Always Will” is full of joy and love.
Mallorie Stern plays Margo, Billy’s childhood friend and first editor, with deep love. She clearly has feelings for Billy. In “Asheville” she offers him encouragement while hiding her own disappointment.
David Merrill gives a wonderful emotional range as Alice’s lover Jimmy Ray. “Whoa Mama” is full of love as he flirts with Alice. He gives “Heartbreaker” pain, sadness, and anger as he learns what his father the Mayor (John Purnell) has done. His duet with Sergo in “I Had a Vision” is rich with sadness.
John Purnell plays the Mayor with ruthless cunning, trying to fix up Jimmy Ray with a political and business-appropriate marriage. In “A Man’s Gotta Do” he reveals his determination to make his son successful, committing a terrible act in the song’s reprise.
George King and Julie Fox give a severity to Alice’s parents, Daddy and Mama Murphy. In “Firmer Hand” they are hard and unforgiving, pushing Alice to rebelling. Fox is full of encouragement and love in “She’s Gonna Shine,” and King and Sergo have a deeply touching scene in Act II.
Blake Martin gleams with comic timing as Daryl, part of Alice’s staff. His cutting comments to Billy drip with condescension and jealousy, while Alice thwarts his own literary ambitions with a word. Ally Baca gives a youthful energy as Lucy, another of Alice’s staff. She flirts with Billy in “Another Round,” showing him the joys of “hard liquor.”
Set Designer Dan Snyder has built a set allowing for quick scene changes. A porch is moved from left to center for the Canes’ and Murphys’ homes, while various screens pull out for a cabin in the woods, a bookstore, newspaper, and other locations. The band is in the back center, in a covered porch with a fan.
Costume Coordinators Lee Ann Cain, Hillary Leyendecker, and Leigh K. Rawls create outfits appropriate to the period that also help distinguish the other characters. Billy begins in a military uniform, then switches to khakis and button-down shirts. Daddy Cane wears overalls, while Alice usually wears bright dresses or skirts. Margo has a plaid dress.
Lighting Designer Peter Kaiser increases the tension in dramatic moments by throwing the spotlight and lowering the lights at certain moments. Sound Designer Bill Reinhardt throws out the sound of a train chugging along, first at the very beginning, and later at a crucial point.
Musical Director Paige Rammelkamp gives a good balance between music and singing, neither one overwhelming the other. The music feels authentic to the time and place and is different from most musicals. Choreographer Kristin Rigsby highlights the bluegrass feeling with square dancing–inspired movement, with lots of twirling and foot-stomping. There are also lovely lifts and spins. Jerry Vess does a wonderful job as director. The performers expertly navigate the stage and each other, singing with great energy and emotion. While the plot is a bit predictable (this viewer figured out the big revelation early on), the music, singing, and acting make for a fun evening.
Running Time: Approximately two hours 30 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.
The Bright Star virtual program is online here.