The show begins when Billy Cane (AJ Shively) returns home from the second World War to his backwoodsy North Carolina town. He learns his mother has died and laments her passing, but quickly moves on. He dreams of following his own Bright Star, which is to become a published writer. With the encouragement of his childhood friend Margo Crawford (Hannah Elless) he moves to Asheville in hopes of writing for the Asheville Southern Journal. He soon meets Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack,) the Journal’s stern editor. She quickly tosses Billy to the curb, but in a moment of fleeting weakness, she gives him a second chance. We are quickly transported back to the 1920s when Alice is a free-spirited teenager in love with Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Paul Alexander Nolan). Alice comes from a working class family, but Jimmy Ray’s father has bigger hopes for his son. When Alice becomes pregnant, Josiah Dobbs (Michael Mulheren) does what he deems necessary to protect his son and ultimately takes Alice’s baby from her, disposing of him off the back of the train. As is the case with all great musicals, things work out for everyone. Alice and Jimmy Ray find one another decades later and fall in love again. Billy becomes a published writer and marries Margo. Oh, and I forgot one small detail…Alice’s baby didn’t die. He was rescued like Moses in a basket by a farmer and his wife; they named him Billy Cane.
If you think I threw that plot twist at you nonchalantly, then you and the show’s audience are in the same boat. The double-timeline structure is a tricky one for an audience to follow, but we will stick with you through the never-ending rising action if the payoff is sweet enough. In this case, the climax was over and done with faster than you could say Yee Haw! Billy invites Alice to visit his family home, she sees the baby sweater she knitted in a box of his old things, they realize they share blood, and they move on happily ever after. Where is Billy’s anger over being lied to by his father? Where is his confusion over which family he should feel allegiance to? Where is his father’s guilt over lying to his son or never helping him to find his birth family? The double timeline and the North Carolina setting do conjure images of a Nicholas Sparks novel, but the questions that are left unanswered and the lack of emotional catharsis are more reminiscent of a lifetime movie.
Though the structure and pacing of the book have serious flaws, the dialogue itself is sharp, witty, and dripping with appropriate southern colloquialisms. The score, both homey and evocative, is hands down the best I’ve heard in show that uses the country vernacular. Walter Bobbie’s direction is as swift and seamless as the clunky book will allow, using stylized movement rather than codified dance to express the melodies and transition between timelines and scenes. Carmen Cusack’s Broadway debut has been a long time coming, but talk about waiting for the perfect role! I have never seen an actress play two distinct ages so convincingly. You believe her when she’s 17 and when she’s 40. For fans of Designing Women, Cusack’s 1940s Alice is a dead ringer for Julia Sugarbaker. She has the musical theatre chops to “act the songs” and develop the character, but in my book nailing this role comes down to that country spirit and she exudes it. Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton would be proud. After having seen this show nearly two weeks ago, Cusack’s performance and the score are two of the three things that have stuck with me. The final thing is one of the most memorable lines I’ve ever heard in a musical: “It would be easier to remove Lincoln’s face from Mt. Rushmore than to remove home from the heart of a Southern Writer.” This motif carries this show, and while it may not sell hundreds of thousands of tickets to a Broadway audience, the sentiment will mean the world to those who get it.