Alice Murphy has a story to tell that even she doesn’t want to know.
It has been compartmentalized, stored far away from her life as a liter-ary editor in Asheville, N.C. That is, until the appearance of a new young writer opens the lid — familiar features, a wave of similarity to the boy and the baby she was forced to give up, the same hometown area.
But her son is dead.
Murphy’s story, in the musical
“Bright Star” currently at TheatreZone, is based on a true one. Its songwriters, no less than Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, have honored that with an infusion of bluegrass and Americana in orchestration with melodies that can travel anywhere. It was strong enough musically to win the Drama Desk musical award and score ﬁve Grammy nominations in a year that included “Hamilton,” “Waitress” and “School of Rock — The Musical.”
Like its chief competitor, “Hamilton,” it’s one of a kind, according to Mark Danni, TheatreZone founding artistic director.
“I just don’t know that there is another musical of this variety,” he said. “Bright Star” brings mandolin, ﬁddle and banjo into the pit, to inject twang into hummable tunes like “Whoa, Mama” and the title tune. “It’s really one of my very favorite musicals.”
Danni has had some of the same serendipity that infuses the “Bright Star” story line in locating deep talent:
- Finding Kimberly Doreen Burns, whose parents live in Naples and who has been longing to play Alice Murphy since she was a ﬁnalist for the pre-Broadway, Old Globe Theatre production of “Bright Star.”
- The good fortune that Burns even brought her own villain — her husband, fellow actor Jim Ballard. He plays the hard-hearted Mayor Dobbs, who takes both Alice’s sweetheart and her baby from her.
- Karen Batten, a nurse by career, but banjo player by choice —”When you play bluegrass music you need a day job,” she told Danni — for the orchestra. Batten plays in the duo Paddle Faster, popular for their bluegrass virtuosity at local spots such as Fit and Fuel. She’s also a picker for local bluegrass favor-ites, the Bugtussle Ramblers.
- “I ﬁgured I’d ﬁnd someone in regional Florida. But she was right here in Na-ples!” Danni marveled.
- And ﬁnally, Keith Thompson as music director for this musical. Thomp-son is a theater veteran from New York who works in Las Vegas now. But his ﬁrst Broadway musical was a 1975 work, “The Robber Bridegroom,” based on a classic Southern tale by Eudora Welty and with similar instrumentation.
He’ll play piano as well as direct music.
Thompson, a former tour bandmate of Danni, also has Southern roots. He grew up in Alabama and Mississippi, where family members would bring out their musical instruments for impromp-tu hootenannies: “It’s in my DNA,” he said.
“And this one in particular — the way it’s set up with the banjo, ﬁddle, mando-lin and guitar — is very beautiful. The combination of colors and sounds gives it authenticity.”
Thompson, who studied classical music at Juilliard, also thinks the music stands on its own, with numbers American songbook singers are likely to start incorporating into their repertoire.
“You could just add horns and winds. Those melodies are very beautiful. This is good writing.”