Monday, May 15, 2023

"Bright Star" at DalekoArts

"Just because something ends doesn't mean it wasn't successful." This quote from Philip Dawkins' play Failure: A Love Story perfectly encapsulates my feelings about the announcement a few months ago that DalekoArts would be closing their doors for good after the production of their spring musical Bright Star. For 11 seasons they were successful. Not necessarily in a financial sense (I can't speak to that), but artistically, and in creating a community of theater-makers and theater-lovers in the far-flung town of New Prague. Daleko is a Czech word meaning "far away," but when you're at Daleko, you don't feel far away from anything, you feel connected - to the artists, to your fellow audience members, and most of all to the story playing out just a few feet in front of you. To list my favorite memories at Daleko would take too long, but I've loved everything I've seen there, from silly original comedies to scary thrillers to rarely done musicals to that time I followed a couple of crazy artists around historic downtown New Prague. I'm happy for co-founders Ben Thietje and Amanda White that they're going out on their own terms, and moving on to new adventures, and I'm grateful for every silly, profound, beautiful show I saw at the Prague Theater over the last seven years. The bluegrass musical Bright Star (in only the second professional theater production in #TCTheater) is a perfect choice for the last show, and represents the heart, humor, inventiveness, thoughtfulness, and joy that's been present for 11 seasons. I'd tell you to go see it, but the entire run has been sold out for weeks. But if you've been to DalekoArts, you know how special it was.

And now, back to the show. Our story begins with our heroine Alice at the end of WWII, singing that she has a story to tell (and boy, does she!). A young soldier, Billy, returns to his small town in North Carolina to find that his mother has died. He's been sending his sweetheart Margo, the proprietor of the local bookstore, his stories, and resolves to go to the big city of Asheville to sell them to a magazine. It's there that he encounters Alice, the hard-nosed editor. But Alice tells her employees that in her youth she was a bit of a wild child, and we flash back to the 1920s, when teenage Alice falls in love with a boy. But Jimmy Ray is not just any boy, he's the son of the mayor, and things don't go as planned (they rarely do in love, or life, or theater). We flash back and forth between these two points in Alice's life, until we finally see the connection between them, and it's a beautiful and satisfactory moment of resolution.

Alice (Ruthie Baker) and Jimmy Ray (Daniel Greco)
(photo by Dan Norman)
The story is told not just with words and music, but with movement. There are some lovely physical theater elements, with the ensemble almost always present on stage and helping to physically create the world of the play. I especially loved the scene in which Margo confesses her love for Billy after he has left, with Billy and the ensemble repeating the action of the previous scene, as well as the slow transformation into a train with the use of movement and percussive sound. Director Amanda White and Choreographer Kyle Weiler have succeeded in creating "a fluid, often dreamlike quality, full of breath and pulling tensions" (as noted in the program). The movement and music heighten and highlight the very real and grounded emotions of the characters.

Speaking of music, one of the brightest stars of Bright Star is the bluegrass score (written by Edie Brickell and Steve Martin, yes, that Steve Martin), which not only covers the range from up-tempo foot-stomping numbers to gorgeous ballads, but is extremely effective in conveying the aforementioned high emotions. When Alice's life is changed forever, when Jimmy Ray confronts his father, when the those who have done wrong express regret, when the long-awaited reunions come, you feel it in your bones. That's the purpose of music in musicals, to make you feel the emotions more deeply than mere words could accomplish, and Bright Star succeeds in this with flying colors. Plus, hearing a banjo, fiddle, and mandolin coming from the above-stage six-piece band (directed by Bradley Beahen) is a thrill for fans of bluegrass/folk/Americana music, a style not often represented in musical theater.*

Billy (Jake S. Nelson) and Margo (Abby Holmstrom)
(photo by Dan Normal)
The incredibly talented 12-person cast feels like a true ensemble, exemplifying the "no small parts" mentality. They each have a musical or comedic or emotional moment to shine. In the lead role of Alice, Ruthie Baker was a last-minute replacement for the original actor, who dropped out due to health reasons. But you would never know it, and it's hard to imagine anyone else in the role, because she's so perfect. Her pure and clear voice rings out with great emotion, and she's believable as the carefree young girl, the grieving mother, and the adult resigned to her fate and her life. In the program Ruthie notes that this is her dream role, and she just radiates the joy and true emotion of it. Other highlights in the cast (to name just a few) include Daniel Greco as Alice's beau Jimmy Ray, a charmer with a beautiful and versatile vocal instrument; Jake S. Nelson as the fresh-faced and earnest Billy; Abby Holmstrom as his girlfriend Margo, just riveting in her solo moments; and the comedy team of Amanda Mai and Grant Hooyer as Alice's employees.

DakeloArts has been able to do a lot with a small stage, and for this show Robin McIntyre has created a rustic set with high platforms on either side reached by stairs or ladders, allowing for endless staging possibilities. A couple of wooden tables and chairs, gracefully moved around by the ensemble, are all that's needed. The cast is dressed in humble early 20th Century country clothing (designed by Cynthia Wade Forsgren) that tell us who these people are - hard-working but fun-loving.

The hard thing about this is that DalekoArts has only been getting better and better. They've been making interesting and sometimes risky choices in programming, along with some proven crowd-pleasers and original works. This production of Bright Star is right up there amongst my favorite shows I've seen there. I had tears behind my eyes for pretty much the entire show, partly because I knew it was the last time, but also because this story, this score, and the performances just do that to you. They say you should go out on top, and leave them wanting more. That's exactly what Daleko has done.

*Some text borrowed from my review of the regional premiere at Lyric Arts in 2019.