One morning last year, while Oral Roberts University faculty member Laura Holland was watching "The Today Show," she caught a segment of "Bright Star," the Tony-nominated bluegrass musical, set in the Blue Ridge Mountains, by actor/comedian/banjo picker Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, right as it was opening on Broadway. She then went out and bought the album. "It really peaked my interest, so I started investigating it, and found the music to be charming and haunting," says Holland, who chairs the ORU Theatre, Dance and Visual Arts Department, and directs the production — an Oklahoma premiere — which opened Thursday night and runs through Sunday in the university’s Howard Auditorium. "It is bluegrass-style music that is used to tell a very interesting and unique story."
How "Bright Star" wound its way as a live production at ORU as a premiere is another winding tale. When the show closed on Broadway, "I immediately asked if they were going to release the rights to produce the show," says Holland. "I was told that a tour was being considered, and if that didn’t happen, they would contact me." The tour did formalize, she says, but the nearest it came to Oklahoma was Dallas. "I went down to Dallas to (it) and fell more in love with the show after I saw it staged." When the tour closed last July, Holland immediately asked for the rights to produce it. "This is really a unique piece of theatre that is lyrical and respectful of the Appalachian culture," says Holland. "The bluegrass melodies make us laugh and celebrate life, then immediately make us cry with heartbreak."
Based on a real-life event and set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, "Bright Star" tells the story of a young soldier just home from World War II who meets the female editor of a southern literary journal. The powerful secret, and heartache and loss they encounter, ultimately changing their lives. The show was nominated for a Tony Award, and Variety magazine described it "as a gorgeous anthem to optimism!"
It has been a busy seven weeks of rehearsals, since auditions of the 28-member cast, she says. When one thinks of bluegrass music, mouth harps and hand dulcimers can come to mind. Instruments performed by the 10-piece orchestra, which include three ORU students and two faculty members, and remaining professionals, include banjo, mandolin, guitar, bass, fiddle, violin, viola, cello, keyboard and percussion.
Holland describes the stage as "a moving unit set choreographed into the story as if it were another character." The play opens in 1945, with flashbacks to 1923. "Those transitions are accomplished by lighting and moving scenery on and off the stage," says Holland.
Looking back on how "Bright Star" found its way to the Tulsa and ORU, Holland says its music is what first caught her. "The music immediately intrigued me and made me want to investigate this show further. I am always looking for material for our program to produce. This looked like a really wonderful possibility, and now this weekend has become a reality."
Performances are at 7:30 p.m., Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and 2 p.m., Sunday. Tickets are $10 for adults, and $5 for students.