Hope & Community in LI Premiere of Bluegrass Musical ‘Bright Star’

Pictured Above: Alice Murphy and Jimmy Ray think ahead to what they believe will be a good future in RFCT’s new production of “Bright Star.”

Sometimes the biggest stories, which encapsulate all our desires and fears, are told with the clearest, most piercing and straightforward voices.

Members of the Riverhead Faculty & Community Theatre are excited to be presenting a show that takes up that mantle: the Long Island premiere of Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s 2014 bluegrass Broadway musical “Bright Star,” for two weekends beginning Nov. 1 at Riverhead High School.

The show is a homecoming of sorts for director Justin D. Harris, who grew up performing with the RFCT before going off to get a neuroscience degree at Brown University. He later returned home in pursuit of his first love, the theater, where he has been acting in community theater and teaching and directing youth productions at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center for the past several years.

The ensemble of townspeople.

It’s a full circle of a path that is echoed in this production.

“It’s a beautiful show to watch, filled with spirit and community and hope,” said Mr. Harris of “Bright Star” in an interview with The Beacon in late October. “This is very homegrown country. The North Fork and the East End is very much like a small country town. I felt like it was a no-brainer for this show to appear on the East End.”

The play is based loosely on the story of the “Iron Mountain Baby,” a baby who was found in a valise that had apparently been thrown from a train outside of Irondale, Missouri in 1902.

This story becomes intertwined in “Bright Star” with the tale of a soldier named Jimmy Ray who returns from World War II seeking a career as a writer, and his life-changing encounter with Alice, an editor at the Asheville Southern Journal in North Carolina.

The story is told through song with a bluegrass band comprised of both student and professional musicians.

“Justin brought it to RFCT as a proposal back in the spring,” said the show’s producer, Jennifer Eager. “We were really open to whatever he was going to propose because we wanted him as a director. It sounded fun and different. We usually do more orchestral work.”

“I knew from acting with him that he has a lot of ideas and visions — he’s a huge ideas guy,” she added. “RFCT wanted to open ourselves up to a new director, and though he’s directing here for the first time, he’s not new to us. He’s been with RFCT since he was a child.”

Young Alice is horrified to learn she is being forced to give up her baby

“I’ve been waiting to direct something big for a while, and RFCT is where I got my own theater start,” agreed Mr. Harris. “I always loved the show, specifically for its music. The bluegrass country sound is kind of entrancing, even if you don’t like the genre itself. The lyrics are humane and it pulls you in with its simplicity and ruggedness. It’s a story of the impact that an individual narrative can have on the collective spirit of the community.”

While the Broadway production of the show had the same actors playing older and younger versions of Billy Ray and Alice, Mr. Harris decided for this production to cast four actors in the roles.

John Yaiullo plays the younger Jimmy Ray and Jason Donohue plays the lead as an adult, while Rita Sarli plays the younger Alice and Nicole Gebler plays her adult counterpart.

“It was a learning experience, as far as ‘how do we communicate one thing across two bodies? How does it translate?’” said Mr. Harris. “Because they are the lead characters, they had to very much work hard on establishing themselves as just two characters.”

Adult Alice, the editor, chastises a reporter for writing purple prose.

The original cast called for 10 to 14 people, including an ensemble of community members, but this production includes 35 actors from all over Long Island who come together to navigate the intimate textures of this play.

“We have some people who are coming from Nassau and Queens. They are desperate to be in the room because they love the show, its story and theme,” said Mr. Harris.

Because RFCT’s shows are staged in the Riverhead High School auditorium, which is used by school musical groups and the school’s own drama program, the set is all moveable, and the actors serve as stage crew, working the set changes into the choreography.

“That was the biggest challenge,” said Ms. Eager.

Musical director Karen Hochstedler has also selected a wide-ranging pit bluegrass band, including Southampton seventh grader Charlotte Arnzen on cello, Southampton ninth grader Tessa Arnzen on fiddle, professional guitarist Douglas Baldwin on banjo, mandolin and guitar, Suzuki string instructor Corrina Bollerman on violin and viola, guitarist John DeRicco, Lana Fusco on upright bass and Riverhead High School junior Will Green on drums.

“I have incredible trust in Karen to find musicians,” said Mr. Harris. “This play calls for very specific instruments, things you don’t typically find in a Broadway pit orchestra. Even the students have taken on the big instrumental parts.”

“I saw this show on Broadway, and it was an incredible experience. It just enraptures the heart,” said Mr. Harris. “It takes you on a journey, right from the beginning.”

“Bright Star” will be at the Charles Cardona Auditorium at Riverhead High School, 700 Harrison Avenue in Riverhead Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Nov. 1 through Nov. 10. Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at the door and $10 for students.

RFCT has set up a special ticket website at our.show/riverheadbrightstar, which also includes cast, crew and orchestra bios and more information about the show. Tickets are also available by calling 631.764.7049.

“The urgent sense of community in Bright Star was the framework for our particular developmental process,” says Mr. Harris in his director’s note on the our.show website. “Every inch of this production was riddled with collaboration, conversation, and cumulative consciousness that what we were attempting to do was bigger than us all.”

— Beth Young

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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