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Prairie Fire Theatre's bluegrass musical 'Bright Star' finds hopeful story in a lost child

Actors Eden Susong, left, and Kristian La Veque rehearse
Prairie Fire Theatre
Actors Eden Susong, left, and Kristian La Veque rehearse for the musical "Bright Star," which opens Aug. 9 in Bloomington.

The musical “Bright Star” centers on a haunting moment: someone putting an unwanted newborn baby into a small suitcase and tossing it into a river.

The preceding events and fallout from that moment — and the surprising fate of this Iron Mountain Baby — come to the stage next week at Bloomington-Normal’s Prairie Fire Theatre. The show runs Aug. 9-13 at Illinois Wesleyan’s Westbrook Auditorium.

The show is co-written by the actor, comedian and banjo aficionado Steve Martin. His musical style is a match with the setting — the American south in the 1920s and '40s — and expands on the true story told in the old folk song, “Iron Mountain Baby.”

“I have a personal connection to it. My family history is in the Smoky Mountains — on the North Carolina and the Tennessee side," said stage director Scott Susong. "And that’s where this is set. I feel like I know the people. Their voice makes sense to me.

“All theater is really about storytelling, and the stories we choose to tell. And I want complicated, human characters that are conflicted, and the narrative is maybe unusual in structure, and that it has striking music.”

Scott and Charlie in the WGLT studios
Ryan Denham
"Bright Star" stage director Scott Susong, left, and music director and conductor Charlie Berggren in the WGLT studios.

“Bright Star” has that. It’s the story of literary editor Alice Murphy, who meets a young soldier just home from World War II. That awakens her longing for the child she once lost. Haunted by their unique connection, Alice sets out on a journey to understand her past. What she finds has the power to transform both of their lives.

Though it’s set in the past, the musical itself is relatively young. It debuted on Broadway in 2016.

That allows Susong and his colleagues the chance to find an approach that feels fresh, while also exposing the Bloomington-Normal community to a newer piece.

“It really attracts a lot of young, talented performers. We had a ton of Illinois Wesleyan and Illinois State students who were willing to stay here this summer to do this show because it was ‘Bright Star.’ All of my voice faculty — literally all of my voice teachers (from IWU, where he’s on faculty) — are playing roles. And it’s because they’re like, ‘Oh, I haven’t gotten to tackle that score. I haven’t done it before.’”

It's a challenging production. The show jumps back and forth through time. Within a single scene, one group of actors may be in 1923, another in 1945, and another in 1946.

The lead actor, Wendy Marck as Alice, needs to be believable at age 16 and at 40, to serve the story. And the cast is primarily always on stage, stepping forward to tell the story.

“People will have to lean forward. The narrative does jump back and forth,” Susong said.

They’ll lean forward and maybe start tapping their toes, too.

The Tony-nominated score by Martin and Edie Brickell is a knee-slapping, banjo-playing, bluegrass-country-jazzy-soul crossover, that will be played live by eight musicians. They’re led by music director and conductor Charlie Berggren, who also teaches at IWU. They, too, have a challenge.

“How do you mimic the sound of people on stage slapping their thighs, or a boot stamp on the front porch? There’s a lot of body percussion. A lot of the actors on stage do that, but it’s also supported by the percussion kit,” Berggren said. “So how do you make that as natural-sounding as possible, and (get that) rustic and woodsy Appalachian sound?”

Prairie Fire Theatre’s production of “Bright Star” runs Aug. 9-13 at Westbrook Auditorium at IWU. You can find tickets online.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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