Bluegrass informs upcoming ‘Bright Star,’ ‘Oklahoma’

 The sound of bluegrass will be filling the Cohoes Music Hall for the next two months as the Playhouse Stage Company mounts back to back shows infused with the quintessential strains of banjo, fiddle and mandolin. First up is “Bright Star,” a two-act musical written by the duo of Steve Martin, the multitalented comedian, and Edie Brickell, the singer/songwriter and former lead of The New Bohemians. The show opens Thursday and continues through Feb. 13. After that comes a March run of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “Oklahoma!” in an original arrangement for bluegrass ensemble.

“Bright Star” is set in North Carolina during the 1940s with flashbacks to the ’20s. It centers on a woman whose newborn was 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 to the 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 virtuoso on the banjo, appeared onstage some nights during the Broadway production, which ran for about three months. There was a national tour during the 2017-18 season.

         “It’s been my dream to do this show someday,” 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 that got canceled because of the pandemic. “That was disappointing and so I was happy to hear from Owen,” she said, referring to Owen M. Smith, producing artistic director of the company.

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

At the moment McGrath’s favorite past productions are the ones that have a country music slant. With an Irving Berlin score, “Annie Get Your Gun” doesn’t really count, despite its setting in the Wild West. But McGrath was also in “Hands on a Hard Body,” which has roots style music written by Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio, and she played the title role in “Always… Patsy Cline,” which ran in two consecutive seasons.

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

Besides a fondness for the bluegrass strains in “Bright Star,” McGrath has also developed an admiration for her character who is first seen as a journalist and editor – an impressive accomplishment for a woman in 1945. “It would be easy for her to go down a road of depression, anxiety and darkness. But she maintains her enthusiasm and joie de vivre. She’s able to forgive and used the trauma in her life to push forward,” McGrath said.

      Music director Brian Axford was also champing at the bit to do “Bright Star.” “This is one of my bucket list dream shows,” she said. Axford is a Capital Region native who regularly works in theater and is also music director at Delmar Reformed Church. Bluegrass sneaked into his life during college when he studied piano at McGill University in Montreal.

“Music school became so intense with practicing all the time. I needed some music to distract myself and bought a mandolin on impulse. I quickly fell in love with the music and the sound of bluegrass.”

According to Axford, the songs in “Bright Star” actually reference a variety of folk styles from two different eras, making for what he describes as “an American roots blend.” While playing mandolin, he’ll be leading a 10-piece ensemble that performs onstage. At points during the show, several cast members will pick up instruments to join in the music making.

Often the job of music director in a theater involves jiggering with the instrumental parts to fit what performing forces are available and affordable. Axford said musicals of the mid-century were usually scored for an orchestra of 30 players, a luxury unavailable to most theaters today. A savvy music director will make sure that the most attractive and interesting aspects of the score are retained, even if they’re handled by different players.

Axford said the rental materials for “Bright Star” weren’t in need of such ministrations, but he’s deep into the task of a full re-orchestration for the company’s next outing, a bluegrass version of “Oklahoma!”

The notion of a bluegrass score to the 1943 show isn’t entirely original to Playhouse Stage. In 2015, the Fisher Center at Bard College was the site of a re-conceived “Oklahoma!” under the direction of Daniel Fish. That production made it to Broadway four years later and won two Tonys, including best revival of a musical. Fish’s staging innovations 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 throb and straightforwardness of country and western ballads.”

Using the cast recording as guide and inspiration, Axford is transferring the original orchestration to a bluegrass ensemble that he’ll lead. “I’m reallocating the material for harp or piano to guitar and woodwinds and transferring the counter lines to mandolin,” he said. “It’s fascinating seeing how true the recording is to the original within the context of a bluegrass band.”

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

“Bright Star”

When: Opens Thursday, Jan. 27 and continues for 14 more performances through Feb, 13.

Where: Cohoes Music Hall, 58 Remsen Street, Cohoes

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

Joseph Dalton is a freelance writer based in Troy.




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