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A brightly shining ‘Star’ for the holidays

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Carmen Cusack shines in “Bright Star” at the Curran. (Courtesy Craig Schwartz)
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In these divisive and uncertain times, a respite of kindness and decency feels like a much-needed emotional oasis. “Bright Star,” the Steve Martin-Edie Brickell musical at the Curran theater, is a journey to just such a spot.

Cynics and self-appointed sophisticates may deride the simple tale, with its clearly defined heroes and villains.

Others, however, will find a satisfying heart connection in the infectious bluegrass strains and a passionate leading actor fronting a strong company.

Set in the 1920s and ‘40s, it’s an old-fashioned boy-meets-girl scenario that hangs on the unplanned result of what can happen when boy-meets-girl. No spoilers here, but the plot shines a light on the limited agency of women in that era that feels sadly current.

Carmen Cusack is radiant as the teenage Alice Murphy, too smart for her hometown, who loved and lost, and as the cautious but compassionate woman she became.

Her face reveals her soul, and her powerful, achingly sung wail of tragedy runs the full continuum to, relievedly, a revival-infused ecstasy when something finally goes her way.

Outstanding, too, are A.J. Shively and Maddie Shea Baldwin as another boy and girl, childhood friends, making the awkward but inevitable transition to true love with all the fumbling, pain and ultimate joy that brings.

Broadway cast member Jeff Blumenkrantz, reunited here with Cusack and Shively, is smart and funny as Daryl, a camp but not too arch magazine editor, and Kaitlyn Davidson is his perfectly wise and wise-cracking foil, Lucy.

The transfer from its too-short Broadway run to tour feels seamless, particularly in the intersection of Walter Bobbie’s thoughtful and fluid direction of the ensemble and the energetic down-home choreography by Josh Rhodes.

The physical production, particularly the scenic design by Eugene Lee, which owes a swirling nod to his Tony-winning work on the original “Sweeney Todd,” is refined but not too changed and remains the perfect playing space for the time-traveling, based-on-a-true-story tale.

The greatest shortcoming in the work is not the miniature train — which should be retired after its first appearance — but Brickell’s uneven lyrics. They ride somewhat awkwardly on the rhythmic track of Martin’s banjo-plucking score, which is deliciously served by six onstage musicians supplemented with pit players.

Alice’s songs of reflection and those offering inspiration, reconciliation and a bit of fun — like the title number, “Another Round,” and “If You Knew My Story” — lift the evening, while the dramatic plot-advancing ones, particularly for the men, feel decidedly leaden and underdeveloped in an otherwise buoyant evening.


REVIEW

Bright Star
Where: Curran, 445 Geary St, S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Dec. 17
Tickets: $39 to $175
Contact: (415) 358-1220, www.sfcurran.com

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