Arts & Leisure

A radiant “Star” at the Gem Theater

THE CAST brings a story to life based on a true incident in “Bright Star” now on stage at the Gem Theater in Garden Grove (Photos by Ron Lyon).

By Thom deMartino

Tragedy is ubiquitous. Sometimes it feels like it would be so easy to slip under – drowning in the marshy depths of day-to-day hardships and heartbreaks that is the lot of being human.

Yet sometimes, when least expected, there is redemption: a ray of light, a shining star to give us hope, to guide our paths… to lead us home.

“Bright Star,” now playing at Garden Grove’s own Gem Theater, is a perfect example of that light in the darkness — a tale of love, loss and heartbreak; and of human connection and hope.

Based on true events – the tale of the “Iron Mountain Baby” – it’s the story of Alice Murphy (Nicole Cassesso): the hard-as-nails editor of The Ashville Southern Journal, as she tells the unlikely story of her own life events, jumping between the current day in 1940’s post-World War II North Carolina, and back in the days of her youth as a hometown girl in 1923.

In the present, young Billy Cane (Brandon Taylor Jones) has recently returned from the war — but the homecoming is bittersweet, as his father (Duane Thomas) tells him of the passing of his mother (in a touching number sung between father and son, “She’s Gone,”) But there are others glad of Billy’s return, too: including his childhood friend Margo (Kelly Rosales), who has been holding a candle for the young man since long before he shipped off to war.

The pair have held an ongoing correspondence during his time away, as he shared with her some of his writings from the front: and the now-returned Billy has dreams of being a writer, to the degree that he plans a trip all the way to the Ashville Southern Journal, intending to camp out on their doorstep to get published, if need be. But first he has to contend with the Journal’s own writers, the droll yet impish Darryl (Tad Fujioka) and the precocious and flirty Lucy (Katie Walsh) … who herself already has a sparkle in her eye towards the handsome would-be Hemingway.

BILLY CANE (Brandon Taylor Jones) and Margo Crawford (Kelly Rosales) in a scene from “Bright Star” at the Gem Theater in Garden Grove.

But final say goes to the dreaded Alice herself, the sharp-tongued and quick-witted Editor-In-Chief of the magazine: and while she knows that the story Billy is spinning her about personally knowing famed writers is certainly a tall tale, she’s willing to give the earnest young man’s skills the benefit of the doubt.

Meanwhile, Alice finds her thoughts drifting back to the heady days of her own youth, as a young well-read woman in the small North Carolina town of Zebulon, smitten with the mayor’s son, the charming Jimmy (Nick Seigel). Jimmy is a far cry from his father, the manipulative and Machiavellian Mayor Josiah Dobbs (Ryan Addison) – who, despite his overbearing nature, does want the best for his son … including marrying him into a financially advantageous family … unlike Alice’s.

But even the best-laid plans may go astray: and when the chips are down, it’s how you respond to the crisis that really reveals your true face and character …

The One More Productions troupe at the Gem Theater is renowned for much of its work, often staging classic and well-beloved musicals: but now and again, they take a chance on something new and relatively unknown to share with a wider audience. Unfortunately, that can translate into empty seats, as the public is hesitant to take a chance on an unfamiliar show.

This, however, is one to take that chance on.

Written by comedic legend (and local boy) Steve Martin and singer/songwriter Edie Brickell, and directed by Damien Lorton, “Bright Star” is a beautiful and uplifting production, with a special charm and authenticity. Whether familiar with bluegrass music or not, viewers won’t be able to help tapping their feet or clapping their hands to some of the rousing numbers, courtesy of the phenomenal work of the band (making use of such diverse instruments as fiddle, mandolin, banjo and standing bass.)

There are a number of both touching and moving musical numbers, including the aforementioned “She’s Gone,” “I Had A Vision,” “So Familiar” and “If You Knew My Story” (the show’s opener); with a gripping story that pulls the viewer in, capturing a true spirit of Americana; and a fascinating juxtaposition between two parallel love stories in two separate eras.

Stand-out performances abound – there’s Nick Seigel as the young Alice’s devoted beau Jimmy (with a stellar performance of “Heartbreaker”); Kelly Rosales as Margo, acting as the sounding board for Billy and his writing, but longing for him to recognize her as more than just the girl he grew up with; and Brandon Taylor Jones as Billy, a young man trying to find his place in the world – pursuing his dreams, wherever they may lead.

Particular note should be made of Ryan Addison as Mayor Dobbs: a powerful, imposing presence, both in his singing and his depth of character. While it may be simpler to attribute his overbearing manner and actions to a flawed persona, Addison offers a brief, strangely sympathetic glimpse into his motivations.

But as one might expect, Nicole Cassesso continues to remain the scintillating jewel in the Gem’s crown.

She has already clearly established her considerable skills with the country genre in the Gem Theater fan-favorite “Always, Patsy Cline,” now, in “Bright Star,” Cassesso once again demonstrates her remarkable vocal range – this time, in the Bluegrass style – as well as her ability to offer the viewer an intense, soulful interpretation of character.

In her portrayal of Alice – both as young and vivacious, as well as older, more restrained, even haunted – we see an organic, determined progression of character; as she strives to transcend her life’s tragedies and challenges, as best she can.

“Bright Star.” Nicole Cassesso, Brandon Taylor Jones and Kelly Rosales star in this fun, fascinating and engaging piece of Americana, set to the music of classic Bluegrass. Playing through Oct. 20 at The Gem Theater, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove, CA, 92840. Call (714) 741-9550 x221 or e-mail for ticketing information.


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