Annapolis Garden Theatre’s Bright Star

Production offers down-home story line with bluegrass tempo

By Matthew Liptak

Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre’s production of the Steve Martin and Edie Brickell musical Bright Star offers theatergoers a heaping helping of bluegrass music and ballads with a story line that takes the audience to the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, but which ultimately gets tied up in a happy Hollywood ending.

The second showing of the second production of this year’s season seemed tentative. The theater’s initial production of Rock of Ages was canceled after three weeks due to COVID-19. Yet, crowds gathered outside the theater Friday night for Bright Star, as storm clouds loomed and rain threatened the show. But the rain held off, and the hootenanny happened after all.

From the very beginning, the audience is treated to the powerful voice of Emily Sergo, who aptly plays Alice Murphy, the character Bright Star centers much of its attention on. Sergo has played multiple roles in past ASGT productions, and Bright Star offers her a new opportunity to highlight her abundant talent.

Jake Schwartz, who plays Billy Cane, and David Merrill, who plays Jimmy Ray Dobbs, are also veteran ASGT actors. A capable cast supports them, some playing lovable characters, while other roles are downright dastardly. It is directed by Jerry Vess, a native of Asheville, and no stranger to bluegrass.

The story begins as Billy comes home to rural North Carolina after WWII. The plot is tinged with sadness, as Billy learns his mother didn’t survive to see him again. But Billy, an up-and-coming writer, has a chance to become reacquainted with Margo Crawford (Mallorie Stern), his childhood sweetheart who now runs the local bookstore.

But Billy has bigger things in mind. Billy goes to the big city, determined to be published in the Asheville Southern Journal. There he meets the editor, Alice Murphy. And so a romantic, tragic, roller coaster of a story ensues.

A bluegrass band playing behind the main stage accompanies all of the action. The music’s tempo starts out reserved, but picks up speed as the first act unfolds. It appears as a challenging score at points for the local volunteer cast. They must try to deftly swing from dialogue that transitions into song accompanied by often up-tempo folksy music, and then transition back to just dialogue again. They do an effective job and the stage really comes alive, as does the music, when the whole ensemble joins together at three points in the play to perform together.

There are three shining points in the play—the couples’ dance, the bar scene, and the ending—which clearly show that this cast as a whole can be more than the sum of its parts.

As they gather to sing and dance to some of the play’s original music, the cast leaves the audience wanting more and propels the musical forward.

Which isn’t to say the play doesn’t go backwards. Bright Star uses the flashback scenes to gracefully reveal the heart of the story, making it easy to follow.

The conflict in the musical revolves around an unexpected, life-altering event in the relationship between Murphy and Dobbs, setting parents against children. All are ultimately haunted by its aftermath.

“How can trouble and happiness walk hand in hand?” Sergo’s character wonders.

Sergo’s character’s prophetic question seems to match our own. After two long, hard years of coping with the pandemic Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre is up and running once again and picking up steam. The ASGT family was touched by loss, too, as it lost one of its most vital members, Sharon Cimaglia, in the fall of 2019. Cimaglia was vice president and director of the annual teen camp, and all-around helping hand. This year’s season is dedicated to her memory.

This season, and ASGT’s recovery, looks to be off to a strong start, if the 100-plus members of the July 1 audience is any indicator. There was a general feeling of relief to be back in the theater that seemed to resonate in the crowd Friday night.

The first act strums along for about an hour and a half in total. Both the quality of the music and the dialogue of Bright Star really pick up the pace in the second act, which is less than an hour long.

Those attending happily chatted, and generously offered applause. When the show was over, many lingered outside the theater to socialize for a bit.

Bright Star runs until July 23.

ThFSaSu 8:30pm, plus W July 20, Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre, $27, RSVP: