The Barter Blog

"Bright Star" Review

March 01, 2018

By: Zach Cooley

Bright Star is a very moving and compelling musical written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickwell on stage now at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon until March 31st. This was a musical I had not intended on seeing but I was kindly invited by the Barter Theatre staff and I'm so glad that I seized the opportunity. With an incredibly beautiful and elaborate set by Dale Jordan who was also responsible for the equally mesmerizing lighting for the show, Jill Anderson and Andrew Hampton Livingston star in a modern-day Romeo and Juliet-type story set in the rural hills of North Carolina.

Inspired by an actual event, young Alice Murphy faces the pain and bliss of young love in the twenties to become an accomplished editor and independent woman of the Asheville Southern Journal in the forties. Based on her own experiences, she nurtures Bill Cane, another young writer from the hills played brilliantly by Justin Tyler Lewis who is destined for big dreams.

Usually, I am not a fan of bluegrass music, but I was very impressed with the live instruments of Lee Harris, Kendra Jo Brook, Glenn Diamond, Sonny Franks, and Jerry C. Greene. I was particularly impressed with the vocal talent of Andrew Hampton Livingston and the playing of Travis F. Welch on the guitar and mandolin. Though it has an Appalachian feel, the numbers have a certain amount of soulfulness that one might not expect in bluegrass music. The feeling and heart of the story are of universal appeal that has also been implemented since the invention of storytelling, much of which began right here in the mountains of Southwest Virginia and North Carolina.

Barter Theatre was selected by Steve Martin and Edie Brickwell to make its off-Broadway here in the United States on its historical Abingdon stage. There could not have been a more perfect story-venue matchup than Barter Theatre and Bright Star. Bill Cane's character is also pursued by young love in the form of Margo Crawford played by Sarah Laughland. The storyline also tugs at your heartstrings when one considers the close-mindedness of mid-twentieth century Appalachian thinking as well as the beauty of real love, which never dies with age.

The second act was opened with a lively number from the musicians, which was greeted with a justly rousing reception. The ensemble cast, which was led by Barter's A-list group, featured Sean Campos, Paris Broadstreet and Rick McVey. All the singing was superb and the acting was projected with the utmost sincerity and heartfelt genuineness. Jill Anderson evoked real tears which made several members of the audience join in her lament. Livingston and Lewis were equally as emotional and moving in the performance of their roles.

This is the ultimate timeless love story, which reminds us that real romances are not fairy tales and none are without their share of pain. However, just when things seem to be the blackest, if you have the right amount of faith, you can emerge with a happy ending even if it is one only of your own making. There were several admirable quotes offered in this play.

"It would be easier to remove the face of Lincoln off of Mount Rushmore then to remove the feeling of home from the heart of a country boy," said Jill Anderson at one point.

"Truth is like a shadow that follows us and until we find it, we are never truly whole," said another cast member.

I was particularly impressed to find out that there was definitely more to Steve Martin than King Tut and Laugh-In. I knew he was a talented musician and had written books, but I never realized what a talented gift he had for writing in general. I had never read his novels, but this story has made me intrigued enough to start. Again, I'm so grateful to Mary Taylor and Richard Rose who invite me to all of these wonderful theatrical programs.

They are always thought-provoking and heartwarming and remind us all what theater is genuinely about, which is connecting to the human condition through the gift of being entertained. We are so blessed to have such a venue as Barter Theatre in our community for the last 85 years, which allows us to do just that. For more information, please visit or call 276-628-3991.