Bluegrass and storytelling front and center in ‘Bright Star’

Molly Rose McGrath and company in "Bright Star" at the Cohoes Music Hall. (photo provided)
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Molly Rose McGrath and company in "Bright Star" at the Cohoes Music Hall. (photo provided)

Actress Molly Rose McGrath is doing double duty in “Bright Star,” a homespun, bluegrass-infused musical, presented by Playhouse Stage Company set to open Thursday at the Cohoes Music Hall.

The Saratoga native plays Alice Murphy, a role she prepared to play with a different theater company before the pandemic canceled the production.

“I kind of feel like I’ve been rehearsing for this show for two years,” McGrath said. “When Owen [Smith] asked me if I would do it with Playhouse Stage I was super excited because I loved it . . . And I feel like I’ve been working on it for so long now.”

Set in North Carolina, it follows Alice at two stages in her life, one when she’s a carefree teen in love in the 1920s and another as an adult working as a magazine editor in Asheville in 1945 and still dealing with the fallout of a tragedy from her teen years.

McGrath plays Alice at both ages, sometimes even within the same scene, after a few quick costume changes that all take place on stage.

“It’s the same character but it’s so different and it’s really fun and interesting as an actor to experience that and figure that out,” McGrath said.

“Bright Star” is written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell and based on their Grammy Award-winning album “Love Has Come For You.” The production is partly inspired by the folk tale of the Iron Mountain Baby, which tells of a couple taking in a baby after he’s cast from a moving train. It opened on Broadway in 2015 and was nominated for five Tony Awards.

In the Playhouse Stage production, McGrath stars alongside a team of entirely local performers, including Shawn Morgan, Daniel Jameson, Dashira Cortes and Brandon Jones, among others.

Joining them on stage is a bluegrass band directed by Brian Axford and complete with mandolin, piano, acoustic guitar, violin, viola and drums.

“We’re really trying to meld the musicians and the actors as one world,” said director Michael LoPorto. “Oftentimes in musicals, the band’s over there and the actors are performing in front of them but we’re integrating them in many ways. Even so much so that some of the musicians are playing parts in the show and some of the actors are playing music as well. So an actor who you’ve been watching as a character will then play piano for a song or two and a violinist will come out and be a character and that’s the idea of the community. It’s not just the actors telling a story it’s everybody on that stage telling a story, which is exciting for us.”

McGrath will jump in on piano during the production.

“It was important to me to try to figure out a spot to do that just because I think it’s so cool having that uninterrupted band member just walk on stage and become a character is something that you don’t see that often in shows and it’s such a neat thing . . . [for] an audience member to see,” McGrath said.

While the storyline deals with tragedy, the bright music grounds the production.

“It feels like an analog play which is so funny because we spent the past two and half years experimenting with digital theater, a lot of artists have, and it’s really great to be in a place with lots of acoustic instruments and just regular folks,” LoPorto said. “We’re approaching it the way stories are told around a campfire. We talk about that in rehearsals, how this is a story that this community is telling and it’s important to them.”

The main challenge to pulling the show together has been, perhaps unsurprisingly, COVID-19 precautions. During early rehearsals, each cast member had to wear surgical masks, which can be tricky when working on some of the more powerful songs.

“It’s hard not to think about it because some of the stuff that I sing, that everybody sings is big, loud . . . it’s just a lot of noise and you’ve got to take big breaths for that,” McGrath said. While they won’t necessarily have to be masked during the performances, wearing them during rehearsals was an additional layer of precaution.

“We want to get to the opening and unfortunately, there’s not really any other option, we’re being tested all the time but to really be as safe as we can, we’ve got to wear them. There’s a lot of people involved in this and if one of us gets sick that could ruin it for everybody,” McGrath said.

“Besides the masks, which is strange, we’re just really grateful to be there and committed to this, committed to telling the story. Everyone sort of feels the beauty of it all so it almost supersedes any of our fears,” LoPorto said.

It’s an ideal time to be working on “Bright Star” because the production focuses on community and the importance of storytelling.

“How many of us watched Netflix or added Hulu and Disney Plus, and started binge-watching shows because we were home so much? . . . It’s really cool to have a story that’s going to take place in a real theater, with real people that really focuses on the idea of how storytelling . . . can really save us in some ways; how stories can bring comfort and enlightenment to us,” LoPorto said.

“Bright Star” presented by Playhouse Stage Company

WHEN: Opens 8 p.m. Thursday and runs Thursdays – Saturdays through Feb. 13
WHERE: Cohoes Music Hall
TICKETS: $30-40
MORE INFO: playhousestage.org
NOTE: Patrons are required to present proof of vaccination or a negative test against COVID-19 within 48-hours to enter the Music Hall for the production. Masks are also required, except when seated and actively eating or drinking. All Thursday evening and Saturday matinee performances (2 p.m.) will feature socially distanced seating with a capped attendance of 100 patrons.

Categories: Entertainment, Life and Arts

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