Bluegrass Announces Next “Bright Star”, “Oklahoma”

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The sound of bluegrass will fill Cohoes Music Hall for the next two months as the Playhouse Stage Company stages back-to-back shows infused with the quintessence of banjo, fiddle and mandolin. The first is “Bright Star,” a two-act musical written by the duo of multi-talented comedian Steve Martin and singer-songwriter and former frontman Edie Brickell of The New Bohemians. The show opens Thursday and runs through February 13. After that comes a March set of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “Oklahoma!” in an original arrangement for bluegrass ensemble.

“Bright Star” is set in North Carolina in the 1940s with flashbacks to the 1920s. It centers on a woman whose newborn baby is taken from her. Based on a true story, the show was an outgrowth of Martin and Brickell’s collaboration on a 2013 album of original songs titled “Love Has Come for You.” Both artists contributed music and Brickell wrote the lyrics.

“Bright Star” opened on Broadway in early 2016 after short runs at the Old Globe in San Diego and the Kennedy Center in Washington. Martin, a banjo virtuoso, appeared on stage some nights during the Broadway production, which ran for about three months. There was a national tour during the 2017-18 season.

“It was my dream to do this show one day,” said Molly Rose McGrath, who will play the lead role of Alice. McGrath saw the show on Broadway and had been cast as Alice for a production with Schenectady Light Opera which was canceled due to the pandemic. “It was disappointing and so I was happy to hear from Owen,” she said, referring to Owen M. Smith, the company’s production art director.

McGrath has been getting regular calls and taking on high profile roles with Playhouse Stage since making her company debut as the lead in 2010’s “Annie Get Your Gun.” Since then, she’s been seen in “Sweeney Todd”, “Chicago” and “Ragtime”. ”, among other shows.

For now, McGrath’s favorite old productions are those with a country music bent. With a score by Irving Berlin, “Annie Get Your Gun” doesn’t really count, despite its Wild West setting. But McGrath was also in “Hands on a Hard Body,” which has roots-style music written by Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio, and she starred in “Always…Patsy Cline,” which ran for two consecutive seasons. .

“At Skidmore I studied opera and they taught me how to sing properly. That was before I learned to belt. I admire LeAnn Rimes and Martina McBride. Some critics said I was a country singer playing,” McGrath said.

Along with a fondness for bluegrass strains in “Bright Star”, McGrath also developed an admiration for her character who is first seen as a journalist and editor – an impressive achievement for a woman in 1945. “It would be easy for her to go down a road of depression, anxiety and darkness. But she retains her enthusiasm and zest for life. She is able to forgive and has used the trauma of her life to move forward,” McGrath said. .

Musical director Brian Axford was also chomping at the bit to make “Bright Star.” “It’s one of my dream shows on my to-do list,” she said. Axford is a Capital Region native who works regularly in theater and is also the music director at Delmar Reformed Church. Bluegrass snuck into his life during his college days when he studied piano at McGill University in Montreal.

“Music school got so intense with practice all the time. I needed music to distract myself and bought a mandolin on a whim. I quickly fell in love with music and sound bluegrass.

According to Axford, the songs on “Bright Star” actually reference a variety of folk styles from two different eras, creating what he describes as “a mix of American roots”. While playing the mandolin, he will lead a 10-piece ensemble that will perform on stage. At certain points during the show, several cast members will pick up instruments to join in the musical creation.

Often the job of a music director in a theater involves juggling instrumental parts to accommodate available and affordable interpretive strengths. Axford said mid-century musicals were typically written for a 30-piece orchestra, a luxury unavailable to most theaters today. A savvy musical director will ensure that the most appealing and interesting aspects of the score are retained, even if they are handled by different actors.

Axford said the rental material for “Bright Star” needed no such care, but he’s deeply committed to the task of a full re-orchestration for the company’s next release, a bluegrass version of “Oklahoma! “

The notion of a bluegrass score for the 1943 show is not entirely original to Playhouse Stage. In 2015, Bard College’s Fisher Center was the site of an “Oklahoma!” under the direction of Daniel Fish. This production came to Broadway four years later and won two Tonys, including Best Revival of a Musical. Fish’s innovations in stagecraft were many, and the backdrop to it all was the new orchestration, which Ben Brantley in The New York Times described as having “the vernacular rhythm and simplicity of country and western ballads”. .

Using the cast recording as a guide and source of inspiration, Axford transfers the original orchestration to a bluegrass ensemble he will conduct. “I reassign harp or piano material to guitar and woodwinds and transfer counter lines to mandolin,” he said. “It’s fascinating to see how faithful the recording is to the original in the context of a bluegrass band.”


The new production of “Oklahoma!” from the Playhouse Stage Company will be performed by students from the Playhouse Stage Academy. It runs for 10 performances from March 3-13, also at Cohoes Music Hall.

“Shining star”

When: Begins Thursday, January 27 and continues for 14 more performances until February 13.

Where: Cohoes Music Hall, 58 Remsen Street, Cohoes

Tickets: $30 to $40. Call (518) 434-0776 or go to playhousestage.org


joseph Dalton is a freelance writer based in Troy.

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