by Casey Mink
It is a rueful truth: In the year 2016, Broadway audiences are just learning the name Carmen Cusack. However, theatre fans around the country and around the world have long been familiar with Cusack’s versatile and mesmerizing talent. Now, Cusack has been nominated for a Tony Award, recognizing her nuanced and agonizing performance in Bright Star—the show in which she is at long last making her Broadway debut.
In Bright Star, the Broadway collaboration from comedian Steve Martin and singer-songwriter Edie Brickell, Cusack portrays Alice Murphy, the editor of a successful literary magazine, whom the audience first meets in 1943. Alice, a bit too buttoned up for her own good, perhaps, has clearly repressed the painful events of her past, stifling the fun-loving abandon which she once personified.
To understand Alice’s heartache, the audience is able to experience it firsthand, traveling back in time to meet her as a precocious, teenage book-lover in rural North Carolina. Cusack so seamlessly slips from her character’s 38-year-old identity into her former 16-year-old self, it is almost shocking. In fact, if the audience weren’t to literally watch mature Alice transition into her younger counterpart before their eyes, one might think it were two different actresses playing the dual role.
That, of course, speaks to the life with which Cusack is breathing into her character. Each detail of young and adult Alice has been generated from a place of painstaking authenticity—from her singing and speaking voice, down to her oh-so-subtle mannerisms (young Alice walks flat-footed with a gate of unhindered confidence, while adult Alice never once moves without refinement). Cusack’s is the kind of Broadway debut which will be referenced for years to come as the stuff of legend.
That Cusack is just now making her Broadway debut, though, should in no way negate her bona fide success as a stage star of the world. Since long before Alice Murphy, Cusack has been stepping into the shoes of force-of-nature women, including South Pacific’s Nellie Forbush on the first national tour, Sunday in the Park with George’s Dot/Marie at Chicago Shakespeare, Les Miserables’ Fantine in the West End, and a certain green-skinned witch with whom audiences may be familiar, belting to the rafters throughout North America and Australia.
And yet, it is nonetheless thrilling to now watch a star as stunningly gifted as Cusack causing jaws to drop on the biggest and most renowned stage in the world— particularly in a role which she is originating. As Alice, Cusack captivates and guides through a journey of heartbreak and solitude, before safely leading the story back to a place of utmost joy and gratitude. She has embodied this complex woman so fully with care and love, to the extent that, when she sings her 11 o’clock number, ‘At Long Last,’ audiences will rejoice and agree: On getting Carmen Cusack here, beneath the lights of Broadway, it was well worth the wait.