“Bright Star” Illuminates Arvada Stage

Award Winning Musical Is Set In The Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina

Reviewed by Tom Jones
September 7, 2019

Near the end of the show Merideth Kaye Clark takes central stage as Alice Murphy, providing the audience with one of the most thrilling and poignant moments in local stage history.  Her character’s life has just taken a turn for the better and everyone is in awe.  “Star” isn’t just “bright.”  It is dazzling.

Several months ago listening to Sirius XM Satellite radio while driving, I heard a delightful song, “Bright Star.” When I returned home I tracked it down on the internet to find it was written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell and was part of a show with the same name.  I bought the CD and have become enchanted with the music.

Matt Gale Photography 2019

When I learned the show was to be produced at the Arvada Center, I was eager to see it.

I had no idea that a chance encounter with a song on the radio would result in one of my finest theatrical experiences in recent memory.

Alice Murphy is an enthusiastic young girl in the Blue Ridge Mountains, believing she might be in love with the local town mayor’s son, Jimmy.  They are a mis-matched pair – the bright but lowly daughter in a rural town, the bright but down-trodden son of a pompous, too powerful mayor.

Matt Gale Photography 2019

They court.  They love.  Alice becomes pregnant and her life and those of many in the area are to “pay the price for sin.”  This is a beguiling story, portrayed with great conviction by a team of talented performers, set to the wonderful blue grass/country music.  Inspired by a true story (maybe folklore?), the show shifts between 1923-4 and 1945-6 in North Carolina.

The true “Star” of the show is Merideth Kaye Clark as Alice.  She is given enormous support with an especially interesting cast of characters.  Jake Mendes has his own spark as Billy Cane, the young man, a wannabees writer, just back from the war. Steph Holmbo is charming as Billy’s local girlfriend, Margo. Dieter Bierbrauer portrays Jimmy Ray Dobbs, the handsome son under the finger of his father (the mayor), heartlessly and convincingly portrayed by Larry Cahn.

Matt Gale Photography 2019

Families spar over what should be done with the new baby, and the dreadful Mayor decides he will take ruthless charge of the situation.  This is a horrific and heartless moment. The audience is aghast; and the soulful, enchanting music goes on.

Alice goes on with her life, becomes a highly respected writer and editor in Asheville.  Billy Cane is eager to become an established writer and submits some of his writings to Alice who is not impressed.  He is not easily deterred however, and when she finally accepts one of his creations, he becomes delightfully delirious to rush back to his rural town to tell is girlfriend Margo that he is just about famous and that they should get married.

The plot takes some wondrous turns.  The music is continually warm and loving.  This is a story not to be missed.

Matt Gale Photography 2019

“Bight Star” the musical premiered at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego in 2014 and ran for a couple of months.  It opened at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. a year later and began preview on Broadway in February of 2016.  Despite receiving substantial critical acclaim, New York audiences didn’t rush to see it.  The production ran for only 30 preview and 109 regular performances, closing in June of 2016.  That December a reunion concert was held in New York’s Town Hall with members of the original Broadway cast and Steve Marina and Edie Brickell both hosting and performing.

I cannot accurately explain my attraction to this wonderful show.  The music is excellent.  The performances are believable.  The set is charming.  Director Rod A. Lansberry is a brilliant director.  And there is Merideth Kaye Clark in the performance of a lifetime.  Perhaps not her lifetime, but my own!  I cannot remember ever having been so mesmerized by a performance such as she provides as Alice Murphy in “Bright Star.”

“Bright Star”
Where: Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities
6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, CO 80003
When: To September 29, 2019
Box Office 720/898-7200
Online: arvadacenter.org

“Hunchback of Notre Dame” Rings A Bell

Hugo’s Classic Story Is Set To Music At The Candlelight Dinner Playhouse

Reviewed by Tom Jones
September 6, 2019

That famed Parisian landmark was in the news recently, as Notre Dame suffered serious fire damage and is currently closed for repairs.  The Victor Hugo’ famed cathedral story has remained intact, and is now glowing on the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse stage, with a very impressive fire scene of its own.

Dinner theatre has reached new heights with this masterwork production.  The set is remarkable, the choral work outstanding, the performers in great shape.  This is not the standard for-the-children Walt Disney musical. It is virtually a tragic opera with themes of goodness and evil, haves and have-nots, and accepting others “not like us!” 

Ethan Knowles as Quasimodo Photo Credit RDG Photography

Victor Hugo wrote “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” nearly 200 years ago.  The story has been presented in 13 films, five television productions, five non-musical dramas, eight musicals, six operas, five ballets and even a video game.  The current production’s printed program notes: “This universal story of unrequited love and a yearning for acceptance resonates as powerfully today as it did when Hugo created it.”

Two brothers have become estranged.  One has gone far away from his Catholic upbringing, has become involved with a gypsy who gives birth to a hopelessly deformed child.  When both parents die, the unfortunate child in left in the care of his uncle, Dom Claude Frollo, archdeacon of the Notre Dame Cathedral.  

David L. Wygant as Dom Claude Frollo Photo Credit RDG Photography

Frollo has named the child, Quasimodo, and has kept him a virtual prisoner as the bell ringer in the tower of Notre Dame. Quasimodo knows only what the somewhat deranged Frollo wants him to know.  His only “contacts” are with the stone statues in the cathedral, with whom he converses on a regular basis. He can see humanity far below him on the streets of Paris but is never permitted to leave his cathedral sanctuary.

His life changes dramatically at the annual “Festival of the Fools,” when the city is “open” to the dangers of gypsies, the antics of free-roaming animals, and all manner of foolish mayhem permitted for the specific days of the Festival.  Quasimodo ventures outside the cathedral, is harassed because of his deformity, but defended by a beautiful outcast gypsy, Esmeralda.  

Sarah Grover as Esmeralda Photo Credit RDG Photography

What ensues is sheer drama as three stars in the show (Quasimodo, Frollo and Captain of the Guard Phoebus) want Esmeralda as their own.  This is not theatrical comedy, but a serious test of wills, friendship, and longings to belong. I have not seen the Walt Disney movie musical, but understand that this stage version is somewhat darker, as it does not end up with an “everyone-is-happy” conclusion.  The Disney movie, although pegged for a more-adult audience, went on to receive enormous financial success and critical acclaim. This live production includes songs from the Disney film, as well as new music. Music is very good and is interestingly mood-setting.

Ethan Knowles as Quasimodo, Sarah Grover as Esmeralda, Scott Hurts, Jr. as Phoebus, and Scotty Shaffer as Clopin are all very good and with excellent voices.  David L. Wygant, however, is so very evil that he nearly “steals” the show as Dom Claude Frollo.

Director Richard Cowden comes to Candlelight with long list of successful shows — more than 50 productions over a 25-year-career.  Music Director Phil Forman has enjoyed great success with Candlelight and other venues worldwide. Excellent choreography is provided by Heather McClain, and the remarkable set is the work of Ranae Selmeyer, Dave MacEachen, and Joel Adam Chavez, with bells designed and built by the The Stampede Troupe.

This musical stage version was first produced in Germany in 2014, and has not yet appeared on Broadway

With all my enthusiasm for the excellence of the production, there remains something unsettling about it.  There is a bit too much obvious “drama!” At the conclusion of the first act, everyone is searching for Esmeralda who seems to have disappeared.  It became somewhat farcical. I wanted to run to the lobby, to the outside parking lot, and even to the gentlemen’s restroom to see if I could “find” Esmeralda. 

Despite the sometimes overly-dramatic obvious clichés there is so much to be enjoyed.  Director Cowden notes, “This classic source material is as relevant to us today as it was when published 1831.  It contains profound messages of tolerance, morality, and what it truly means to be human.” 

The creative team has worked wonders.  The powerful voices are remarkable. The liturgical choral work, some sung in Latin, is especially rewarding. The show currently at Candlelight is a masterwork of sight and sound.  Opening Night audience awarded the company an unusually-enthusiastic standing ovation.

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame”
Where: Candlelight Dinner Playhouse
4747 Marketplace Drive, Johnstown, CO
When: To November 17, 2019
Box Office: 970/744-3747
Online: coloradocandlelight.com