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Review: Lucky Penny's 'Bright Star' lights up a dark night

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Bright Star

Kirsten Pieschke and Tommy Lassiter star in the musical "Bright Star" at Lucky Penny through June 12. 

What you need to know about Lucky Penny’s latest production, Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s “Bright Star,” is that you will forget that the outside world even exists by the second musical number. You will only be obliquely aware of its existence at intermission because the world requires you to use the bathroom. And when you leave the theater and are confronted by that world, it will be a different place altogether.

The costumes are extensive, the music beautiful, the performances riveting - all of which tell a story so truly human that it will break your heart into pieces by the end of the first act.

But never fear, in the second act, those pieces will be melted down and molded into a new, more resilient heart, so that by the end, you’ll feel like you’ve lived another life, and have all the wisdom that an extra lifetime would entail, but only be two and a half hours older.

Taylor Bartolucci plays Alice Murphy. When we first meet her in 1946, she is a caustic, self-important and constipated editor at a literary magazine in Asheville, North Carolina. Unmarried and childless, she channels her energy into her work.

In walks Billy Cane, played adorably by Tommy Lassiter, triumphantly back in town after a tour of duty in Europe.

Tommy wants to be a writer and works up the courage to submit his stories to Alice. Of course, Alice rejects them. (That is what editors do, after all.) But to encourage him, she buys a story from him anyway, even though she’s not going to publish it.

Then, a flashback to 1923. Alice is not yet 18 and in love with Jimmy Ray Dobbs, played by a tall and earnest Ian Elliot. But here she is an entirely different woman. She is young, fresh and carefree. Headstrong, passionate and mischievous. One night they consummate their love. It only takes once.

After the exam where she learns she is pregnant, the doctor tells her a lie. He says that he will keep her pregnancy a secret. Of course he tells her father, Papa Murphy (Scott Slagle) who in turn tells Jimmy Ray’s father, Mayor Dobbs (Barry Martin).

What Mayor Dobbs and Papa Murphy conspire to do next is abominable. Its callousness, mercilessness, barbarity, arrogance, greedfulness, short sightedness, inhumanity and fundamentally base cruelty is horrific to even contemplate and explains Alice’s frigidity 23 years later. Having a live cast of incredible actors dramatize something so appalling, only makes the experience all the more excruciating.

The parallel to our time right now is striking. Namely, that alcoholic and arrogant old white men are controlling how women have children. Papa Murphy and Mayor Dobbs operate under the mistaken assumption that they should have any say in the matter — given the fact that they, in a fundamentally biological way, have next to nothing to do with giving birth to and nurturing a child.

However, things do not go as planned for Papa Murphy and Mayor Dobbs. A sensitive, merciful, civilized, humble, generous, far sighted, humane, and fundamentally kind person takes their abominable plot and turns it into the most beautiful thing we as humans can experience here on planet Earth.

Just as the the actors’ skills intensified the painful scenes, here they portray this touching turn of events in a way that makes it even more gratifying, comforting — and enchanting. 

That is to say nothing of the singing and dancing. A five-piece bluegrass band on stage accompanied the cast of 18. There is more spectacular music and dancing than dialogue. Their performance was so intoxicatingly contagious that I felt the urge to get up and sing and dance with them, but had to restrain myself lest I spoil the whole thing for everyone else and make a fool out of myself.

And, what is really remarkable is that a theater company in Northern California was so deftly able to create the illusion of life in early 20th century North Carolina. Between their impeccable accents, and the 1920s and 1940s costumes (changes of which I lost count at 30), the bluegrass band and the huge drape printed with the great Blue Ridge of the Smoky Mountains, if one is not actually in Zebulon, North Carolina in 1923 or '45, the only other place one could be is in the audience of one of the finest theater companies in New York City right now.

This is why theater exists. This is theater done well. This is theater that transcends. This is the epitome of great theater that even the ancient Greeks — inventors of the art form — would admire. It is theater that wakes us up from the mundanity of our day to day stupor and reminds us that being human is actually a very special thing.

Lucky Penny's production of "Bright Star" continues through June 12 at their Community Arts Center, 1758 Industrial Way, Napa. For tickets and more information, visit, email or call 707-266-6305.

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