Theater / Film

Actors’ Playhouse Ready to Put the Shine in ‘Bright Star’

Written By Christine Dolen
March 27, 2023 at 8:37 PM

Kimberly Doreen Burns and violinist Margaret Dudasik in a scene from Actors’ Playhouse’s production of “Bright Star” at the Miracle Theatre, Coral Gables. (Photo courtesy of Alberto Romeu)

Of all the shows Actors’ Playhouse is presenting this season, “Bright Star” may be the most unfamiliar to potential theatergoers.

Yes, the 2016 Broadway musical has two Texas-born, big-name creators:  Steve Martin, the actor, comedian, author and banjo player extraordinaire; and songwriter Edie Brickell, lead singer of the band the New Bohemians. The two met through Brickell’s husband of more than 30 years, singer-songwriter Paul Simon.

But this traditional musical, with its bluegrass-folk score, didn’t have a lengthy run at Broadway’s Cort Theatre (30 previews and 109 regular performances). Its 2017-18 tour didn’t play South Florida. And, like the rest of 2016’s nominated Broadway musicals, it was swamped by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s heavyweight “Hamilton” at the Tony Awards.

Kimberly Doreen Burns as Alice and Alex Jorth as Jimmy Ray unexpectedly reunite after a long-ago tragedy in “Bright Star” by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell at Actors’ Playhouse. (Photo courtesy of Alberto Romeu)

Nonetheless, artistic director David Arisco believes the Martin-Brickell collaboration, which flowed from their Grammy Award-winning 2013 roots album “Love Has Come for You,” will be a welcome return to large-scale musicals on the Miracle Theatre’s mainstage in Coral Gables.  The show is in previews Wednesday, March 29 and Thursday, March, 30, then opens Friday, March 31 and runs through Thursday, April 6.

“I heard the cast CD, and it just grabbed me. In college, I went through a bluegrass period – I have an affinity for that fiddle and bluegrass stuff,” says Arisco, who majored in music at the University of Connecticut, plays the trumpet and is a singer as well as a director and actor. “I’m attracted to New York shows that did well but didn’t tour here.  And I realized it’s been a while since I’ve done a big musical with significance in its characters and storyline.”

“Bright Star” is set in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains in 1945-46 and 1923-24, toggling back and forth between the two time periods.  A real historical incident – the story of the Iron Mountain baby – sparked a three-year developmental journey for composer-book writer Martin and composer-lyricist Brickell.

To avoid spoiling the climactic end of the show’s first act, we’ll say simply that it involves a baby who survives a great fall and is miraculously found alive on an embankment near a railroad bridge. The rest of “Bright Star” is Martin and Brickell’s invention.

The story revolves around Alice Murphy, editor of the Asheville Southern Journal, a successful literary magazine.  The 38-year-old Alice is smart, powerful, demanding in her standards, and somewhat mysterious.

“Bright Star” unlocks a key part of that mystery when it travels back to Zebulon, North Carolina, in 1923.  Back then, Alice was a restless 16-year-old in love with Jimmy Ray Dobbs, the mayor’s son.  That passion leads to pregnancy and plans for a future together, but the families’ insistence on avoiding a scandal shatter everything, sending Alice and Jimmy Ray into very different futures.

The story’s other major thread involves Billy Cane, a soldier just back from serving in World War II.  He’s an aspiring writer who leaves his small North Carolina hometown to settle in Asheville and campaign to have Alice publish his work.  Therein lies a tale – as well as lots of songs full of hope and heartache.

Thematically, “Bright Star” deals with the evolution of values, men exercising power over women’s lives (and women fighting back), compromise, family, and forgiveness. Two love stories also play out over the course of the show.

Starring as Alice in the Actors’ Playhouse production is Kimberly Doreen Burns, a New York-based leading lady whose major roles have taken her to theaters throughout the country, including Miami’s Zoetic Stage in a pair of Stephen Sondheim musicals (she played Dot in “Sunday in the Park with George” and the Beggar Woman/Signor Pirelli in “Sweeney Todd”).  Alice’s chief nemesis in “Bright Star” is Jimmy Ray’s father, Mayor Josiah Dobbs, who is played by Carbonell Award winner Jim Ballard – Burns’s husband.

They were paired in a production of “Bright Star” at TheatreZone in Naples in early 2022. In life, the two are a happy couple. In the show, the mayor is the one who changes Alice’s future in an instant with one shocking act.

“I play a lot of bad guys,” says Ballard, an in-demand baritone with extensive South Florida experience. “I grew up in North Carolina … I knew who this guy was. He loves his son and thinks he’s doing the right thing according to the social norms and religious views of his day.”

The actor is among his wife’s biggest supporters. Arisco remembers Ballard saying of Burns, “She’s the best and only person you should cast.”

Jim Ballard plays Mayor Josiah Dobbs in “Bright Star” at Actors’ Playhouse. (Photo courtesy of Brian Ray Norris)

In addition to playing challenging roles all over the country, Burns runs the private KDB Studio, where she teaches voice, acting and musical theater.  She brings her skills in vocal technique to the task of playing Alice at 16 and Alice at 38.

“The approach is multilayered.  The younger Alice shifts her body, her voice and her mind. Her thoughts are quicker, more disjointed, and her voice is higher,” Burns says. “Older Alice has more strength and confidence.”

Burns and Ballard agree that the style of “Bright Star” has more in common with the Golden Age of classic Broadway musicals than with boundary-breaking contemporary shows.

“My preference is for those types of shows anyway,” says Burns of traditional musical theater.  “They pull at your emotions and heartstrings. They hit you deep.  This is just a good story.”

“Bright Star” features an eight-piece band led by music director Eric Alsford, and its cast is a mixture of South Florida performers and actors based elsewhere.

Teddy Warren, a Milwaukee native who moved to Miami almost two years ago when his wife got her residency in psychiatry at Larkin Community Hospital, has been a stay-at-home dad to the couple’s nearly two-year-old daughter. A tenor who studied acting, playwriting and directing at Southern Methodist University, he’s about to make his Actors’ Playhouse debut as Billy Cane.

Of Martin’s script, Warren observes, “His work has a certain genuineness, almost a dryness to it. There are small, specific twists, well-written jokes, sprinklings of humor to create a clean and clear contrast. Because you can’t experience darkness without light.”

Teddy Warren as Billy Cane and Alexandra Van Hasselt as Margo Crawford discover a new dimension to their long friendship in “Bright Star” at Actors’ Playhouse (Photo courtesy of Alberto Romeu)

The actor adds that the tempo of the scenes is akin to bluegrass music, right on the beat, and that the score is more complex than it seems.

“It tries to deceive you into thinking it’s simple, but it has four-, five-, six-part harmonies that create this beautiful sound,” says Warren. “I believe had it not been considered for the Tonys the same year as ‘Hamilton,’ it would have won. I’m excited for it to become a cult favorite.”

New Yorker Charity Van Tassel plays Lucy Grant, an editor at the Asheville Southern Journal who develops a crush on Billy.  She and Conor Walton as her sardonic fellow editor Daryl Ames get lots of Martin’s funniest lines, and she agrees with Walton that Lucy and Daryl are reminiscent of the characters Karen and Jack from TV’s “Will and Grace.”

Her pay-the-bills work in New York bars (Tiki Chick and Bathtub Gin) before, during and after the pandemic helped Van Tassel bring some verisimilitude to a particular moment involving a drink in “Bright Star.”

“I told my scene partner things about a Sloe Gin Fizz, and that it has to be red,” she says.

At left, Actors’ Playhouse artistic director David Arisco wanted New York-based choreographer Sarah Crane to be involved with its production of “Bright Star.” Crane has a history with Actors’ Playhouse as a child performer. (Photos courtesy of Alberto Romeu and Michael Kushner Photography)

Typically, the former Texan says, she’s “a chorus girl, a swing, an understudy, a Fosse dancer.”  She loves the back-and-forth with Walton, and likens her big number “Another Round” (which she describes as a “Dixieland/hoedown kind of thing”) to the rollicking song about the comic villain Gaston from “Beauty and the Beast.”

Working with Arisco on “Bright Star,” a show she compares to “a warm hug or southern comfort food,” has been a wonderful, easy experience.

“I’ve worked on a lot of devised pieces and new works with directors who didn’t know what they wanted,” she says. “Dave has really got a vision. He’s great at communicating it. And he lets us be us.”

South Florida actor-choreographer Alex Jorth plays Alice’s beau Jimmy Ray, and he acknowledges that the role is also something of a departure for him.

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years now, mostly doing ensemble work,” says Jorth, who is choreographer for the new Broadway at LPAC series at the Lauderhill Performing Arts Center. “Here I’m taking on a leading man role, a guy who doesn’t have to do a tap number.  It has more seriousness and heft.”

Jorth finds the show itself notable for its “romance, joy, conflict, tragedy and heartbreak.  It has an old-fashioned sweetness to it.”

He also praises New York-based choreographer Sarah Crane, who got her start in showbiz as a child with roles in “The King and I” and “The Sound of Music” at Actors’ Playhouse.

“The ensemble is incredibly involved in almost every number, and she’s been instrumental in staging them. Her style is fresh, original and right for the era,” Jorth says.

Kimberly Doreen Burns as Alice and Alex Jorth as Jimmy Ray unexpectedly reunite after a long-ago tragedy in “Bright Star” at Actors’ Playhouse. (Photo courtesy of Alberto Romeu)

Crane, now 31, has been sitting by Arisco’s side during rehearsals.  She learned about theater from him and finds his directing style “supportive but never coddling.  He’s an actor’s director; he understands an actor’s journey. He’s kind and fills the room with love.  And as a musician, he understands musical staging and musical theater.”

The choreographer is happy to be working on a Golden Age-style piece that makes the audience laugh, cry and feel on a deep level.

“It has something for everyone:  ballads, stunning singing, young characters, the band onstage. It’s beautiful,” Crane says.

Arisco, whose son Drew went to school at the New World  School of the Arts  and the Boston Conservatory of Music with Crane, says working with her on “Bright Star” has been exactly what he had in mind when he brought her on board.

“I want to bring in young blood, new artists with fresh ideas. They have so many things they want to say,” says Arisco. “There hasn’t been a day during rehearsals when we’ve worked on one of the heavier moments, and I see the ensemble wiping away tears…This is a great story, a coming-of-age story that will hopefully connect with the audience.”

WHAT: “Bright Star” by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell

WHERE: Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables

WHEN: Previews 8 p.m. Wednesday, March 29 and Thursday, March 30. Opens 8 p.m. Friday, March 31; Performances 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, through April 16.

COST: $40 to $125 (seniors 65 and over receive 10 percent off weekdays only; students 25 and younger with valid student ID pay $15 for a rush ticket available 15 minutes before a weekday performance)

INFO: 305-444-9293 or actorsplayhouse.org

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