“There’s always a song to sing…a melody in the dark,” we’re reminded in “Bright Star”—the dynamic “Blue Grass” musical that arose out of a ‘harmonious’ partnership between Steve Martin and Edie Brickell.
Loosely based on a real-life incident (and the legend that arose from it,) the musical has been hailed as a “sweeping tale of love and redemption, fueled by an equally rich Blue-grass score”, arising out of their 2013 collaboration—an album titled “Love Has Come For You”. (One of the songs, “Sarah Jane And The Iron Mountain Baby” served as the inspiration for the larger story at the heart of “Bright Star”.) Now, “One More Productions” –the award-winning musical theater production company housed in the landmark “Gem Theatre” in Garden Grove California, is bestowing this Tony and Grammy Nominated, Drama Desk Award Winning, watershed musical as the latest offering in their 2019-2020 season. Featuring Music, Lyrics and Story by renowned Singer-Songwriter Edie Brickell, with Music, Book and Story by comedic icon, Steve Martin, don’t expect your standard “Musical Comedy” bill-of-fare however; the subject matter involved herewith is far too ‘heady’ and sublime! The direction for this production is by “OMP” Co-Founder, Damien Lorton (who also serves as Musical Director,) while the choreography is by Lorton and Heather Holt-Smith. The noteworthy accomplishment of this musical is how it so effectively switches our emotions into high-gear: If the feeling is happy, amplified through this sonorous lens it’s rapturous; if the mood is down and sad, then its cataclysmic! If the goal of theater is to make one feel and be affected by what they’re seeing and experiencing, the gang at “One More Productions” have certainly succeeded in spades as “Bright Star” is sure to be counted among their grandest productions to date that can lay claim to exactly this phenomenon—this is what magnificent musicals are all about!
Stranger than fiction, the factual circumstances that grew to legendary proportions(—including this musical–) occurred in 1902, and even prompted a folk-tune of that day called “The Ballad Of The Iron Mountain Baby”. The narrative tells of how a real baby was discovered in a valise which was either thrown, or somehow fell, from a train as it passed over a trellis just outside of Irondale Missouri. Fortunately, the child was rescued, nursed back to health and in due course, adopted by the man who found him, and his wife. From this legend, Martin and Brickell have cultivated a story that’s sure to remind some at various junctures of “Splendor In The Grass”, although their re-envisioning transfers the action to in-and-around the rich (and quirky) backdrop of the Blue-Ridge mountains of North Carolina. Taking place “Way back in the day…”–put precisely, the Post-World War Two year of 1945 (with flashbacks to the 1920’s,) the action follows the life events of Literary Editor “Alice Murphy”, who meets a young soldier named “Billy Cane” just home from the War in Europe. An aspiring writer himself. “Billy” oddly reignites her curiosity about the child who was forcibly taken from her by the town Mayor (whose son, “Jimmy Ray”, was the father,) back when she was just a teenager. Hearkening back to 1924, we discover that when “Alice’s” ‘delicate condition’ is discovered, she’s sent to stay in an isolated cabin in the woods. As the first act climax looms heavily—dark and dire, against her protests, the Mayor and his lackey make off with the infant, leaving the newborn to face a precarious fate, as the stage smolders in “Infernal” red light. Then again, as ‘His Honor” reminds us, “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do…” (even if it’s beyond barbarous–and will leave us all breathless as the house-lights come back to full!) As the scene progresses, we the spectators feel “Alice’s” helplessness and are outraged by what’s going on–and the sheer evil of what’s occurring, all done while her own father, “Daddy Murphy” ever so piously clutches his Bible (thus is the way of such ‘plain, righteous’ folk.)
Act Two has the emotionally and existentially annihilated “Alice” leaving the town for good: “I know your father is a tender man,” ‘Ma Murphy’ tells her daughter; “Right now he’s searching scripture to justify what he did, but the Bible is NOT obliging!” Returning to 1945, intrigued by their unique connection “Billy” and she seem to have, “Alice” sets out to investigate her past and the loves she so abruptly lost. “Is it better to hope or to know?” “Jimmy Ray” asks “Alice” upon their unexpected reunion. When she tells him that she’s been searching the Adoption records for years with no lead as to what happened to their son, he confesses what his father told him concerning what (ostensibly) happened to their baby, and it’s as devastating for us as it is for “Alice” to hear it. Their shared lament that ensues, as “Alice” plaintively weeps “I have been blinded”, is an excruciatingly poignant moment, as this wronged mother and regret-filled father sing of all the bitter ‘should-have-beens” while letting go of any hopes for reconciliation they had each harbored for years–even as the stage-lights change from pale-blue (the color of the sweater “Alice” had knitted for her child which he was then taken from her in,) to funereal purple—the color of mourning. Trying to encourage her to get on with life, “Billy” casually invites “Alice” to visit the place where he grew up (and writes so eloquent about) whenever she happens to be in the area. Suffice it to say, when she does, through a strange, off-handed twist-of-fate, what she ultimately discovers transforms and brings long delayed joy into all of their lives! (Be forewarned: Those tears in your eyes will have seldom, if ever, felt so joyful–or welcome!)
As one enters the Gem’s cozy auditorium, you are immediately taken by two things: the home-spun grandeur of the expansive “Barn Dance” scenic design (“What a beautiful set” was the frequently overheard observation from attendees on opening night) ; and the sheer joviality of the pre-show blue-grass jams coming from the on-stage “Hillbilly Band”. That the show is being produced in the shadow of Garden Grove High School alum Martin’s honest-to-goodness alma mater adds a whole new and fascinating dimension to the overall experience. Confiding how he felt like “a kid in a candy store”, Lorton–a recent “Americana Award” recipient, confessed to all first-nighters in attendance that this is one show he couldn’t be more thrilled to present: “I’m so glad to give this show to you,” he beamed right before the production ‘officially’ got underway. His direction keeps the pace mellow generally speaking, as befitting the more languid pace of the indigenous mountain/backwoods culture much of the story revolves around. He also adeptly allows the energy of his musical numbers—either those originating more intimately, then building up size and speed–or others that begin big and just get more amped up from there, to merely burst forth across the stage at whatever level they’re at (the impact is resoundingly felt either way.) More relevant yet, is how he emphatically seems to have done his research and appears to be well acquainted with the culture and mores the story is played against. These include ‘knowing’ little touches like incorporating a snappy ‘spoon dance’—or having a character ‘take charge’ by boldly hopping up on a nearby bar or table (–something that occurs several times– each to tremendous effect.)
Ms. Holt-Smith’s choreography also takes full advantage of the cultural folk-dances native to the region wherein the show is set, in conjunction with those popular within this respective time frame. Arguably, the most effective dance-sections often commence as smaller intermezzos by, or between, one or two figures, in advance of things escalating into a sizable (–make that humongous) full-ensemble endeavor that boisterously rings throughout the theater! Take for example, “Way Back In The Day” which gets underway in the offices of “The Asheville Southern Journal” with “Alice’s” assistant, “Lucy” asking if the boss lady would care to tag along as they head out for a night at the local hot-spot. Although she refuses, this gets Alice to reminiscing—taking the action back to the 1920’s, when, as she words it: “Way back in the day I would’ve gone with you; way back in the day, you could not have kept me away! I was the life of the party, I was happy and carefree; dancing on the floor with everybody, and he was next to me.” This burgeons into a full-on Square-dance as other young couples take to the floor—while “Alice” and “Jimmy Ray” do a slow waltz with one another instead (some of the dancers even perform a few nifty pirouettes adagio-style, adding to the otherworldly sensuality and surreality of the number.) A brief while later, “Alice” even leaps atop a table and begins stomping with the rest while leading the all-out jubilation that’s part-and parcel of “Whoa Mama” (and earning our most uproarious applause in the process!) Post Intermission, “The Sun Is Gonna Shine” also erupts into an unanticipated, but ebullient group interlude–raising spirits and raising the roof when its most desperately needed! The finale, a reprise of “If You Knew My Story”, is about as “Happy” an ending as they come with the cast literally dancing in the aisles!
Nicole Cassesso adds to her substantial list of triumphs on the Gem Stage, starring as “Alice Murphy”, our heroine through and around whom the tale unfolds. Ms. Cassesso dazzles right off with “If You Knew My Story” putting that same country-western tinged voice that so invigorated “Always, Patsy Kline” into this rousing opening, as one-by-one the cast enter and take part. Shortly thereafter, she prevails anew with “Way Back In The Day”, practically giving off sparks—handily enlivening the lilting refrain, as “Alice” essentially “turns back the clock” –transporting us to some twenty summers previous, in the midst of the then-carefree days of her youth. Subsequently, her song to her unborn child “I Can’t Wait” is sweet and soulful as she sings bathed in pale blue lights. When at last all comes full circle with all the wrongs more or less righted, with those who should be reunited irrefutably so, her 11 O’clock showstopper–the gospel-charged “At Long Last” is a full-scale jubilation which will set your foot stompin’ and your heart thumpin! (Even with her already formidable history of outstanding and riveting performances, Ms. Cassesso absolutely ascends to new levels of exceptionalism with this one!) Giving us way more than your standard small-town stud, Nick Seigel is “Jimmy Ray Dobbs”, the object of “Alice’s” teenaged affection (and, sadly enough, the son of the town’s over-ambitious Mayor.) Sure, our boy is handsome and dashing enough, but Seigel wisely allows us to see that he’s got a genuine human soul as well (something “Jimmy Ray’s” father “Mayor Dobbs”—who is hellbent on seeing to it his son makes a ‘proper’ marriage–is sorely lacking!) Seigel also has a compelling singing voice with a stylized, country-fied quality reminiscent of a young Hank Williams that’s well suited for this score. His introductory descant “Whoa Mama (You’re A Young Girl)”, staged as a duo until the rest of the cast jump right in with some nifty foot-stomping, hand-clapping and ham-boning (–accompanied by some nimble use of clacking spoons,) reaches its furious zenith as they joyfully celebrate youth and the kind of guileless adoration one can only confer so freely in their wide-eyed, optimistic days of adolescence. Conversely, his second act, “Heartbreaker” is bitingly-even heart-wrenchingly delivered as “Jimmy Ray” unmistakably and horrifically learns of the depths his father is capable of. Afterward, his part in the near-reverential elegy, “I Had A Vision” opposite Cassesso, is suitably intense for both performers—giving rise to some stirring harmonizing even as the verses are emotionally staggering.
As “Billy Cane”, Brandon Taylor Jones once again proves himself to be fine “Leading Man” material. His earliest chance to unveil his superior singing and acting abilities comes about as part of the affecting duet “She’s Gone” when this returning G.I., just back from overseas comes home to learn that the lady who brought him up has suddenly passed-on. Jones next gets our pulses to pounding with the show’s buoyant titular ode, “Bright Star” as he’s backed by members of the chorus who give over with some similarly knock-out harmonizing, easily making this one a solid production highlight! (–and it bears mentioning as many times as possible: Boy Howdy! Can this lad hit those sustained ‘power notes’!) Kelly Rosales also does a venerable job as “Billy’s” hometown ‘Best Gal”, “Margo Crawford”. Striking a strategic balance to all of the many facets inherent to this “small-town girl”, Rosales astutely paints her as optimistic, but not so idealistic. In fact, her interpretation has a nice touch of reserve in her preliminary scenes opposite Jones. She’s a romantic (working in a bookstore, after all,) but still with her feet planted firmly on the ground and with her eyes wide-open acknowledging everything around her for what it is. (Yes, it’s apparent she has strong feelings for “Billy”—but he has to be the one to make his move!)
Together, Jones and Rosales make for a likeable stage couple, culminating with their terrific duet, “Always Will” , during which the pair finally admit to the feelings each has been not-so-secretly harboring for the other right from the get-go: “We’re supposed to be together, it’s true” they sing to one another; “I’ve had my doubts–but not about you. We’re never meant to be apart. I love you now; I have from the start…I always have, always will.” It’s a thoroughly sweet moment that belies the simplicity of the verse, as all the while the stage around them transforms into a bright pinkish-red ‘Valentine’. Moreover, Ryan Addison doesn’t put a foot wrong as the overbearing, egotistical ‘slime-bag’ Mayor, “Josiah Dobbs”. Playing someone you know the audience is going to hate is never an easy task, but not only is Addison unphased—he’s consummate in the way he turns his phrases and pulls no punches in making us dislike—even loathe—this penny-ante jerk-water political boss. His expositionary duet with Seigel as his son, “A Man’s Gotta Do” is lively, albiet more than vaguely threatening. Reacting to Jimmy Ray’s impending fatherhood (—even going so far as to refer to his Grandchild as “the Creature”,) he drunkenly confesses to his son what he’s really done with the babe and that no ‘adoption’—legal or otherwise–ever took place! “I can’t understand why you can’t comprehend what to do,” he fumes with self-satisfaction; “Why can’t I get through to you?!”
Tad Fujioka too, furnishes another commendable performance as “Daryl Ames”—a droll and persnickety Editorial Assistant at “The Asheville Southern Journal”. While “Daryl” is written as one of the bitchiest and snippiest Fujioka has portrayed thus far, to his abiding credit he shrewdly underplays most of these ‘kitschier’ elements, instead going for realism over easy, cheesy laughs. This makes “Daryl” far more authentic—a credible man of his time (and well aware of the judgments he faces from that time and the people in it,) thus adding a greater believability (were any needed) to the adventure we’re being taken on. Right alongside of him much of the time is Katie Walsh as the perky-but-perceptive “Lucy Grant” (who is no man’s in the woods’!) Walsh gets many chances to evoke a smile or get a laugh with some smart quips or sarcastic retorts now and then, but her key moment in the spotlight has her leading the be-boppin’ “Another Round”, as “Lucy” makes her play for “Billy” at “The Shiny Penny”—only the swankiest gin-mill in town, where they do the latest dance crazes like the “Jitter Bug”, the “Lindy Hop” and the “Flatfoot Floogie”. (“Country girls flatten out under the city lights” “Lucy” at one point tells “Billy” of any girl he may have waiting ‘back home’.) Furthermore, the song’s fast-patter lyrics definitely suit Ms. Walsh’s talents as she struts her stuff, ‘cutting a mean rug’ out on the dance-floor, while the rest of the Hep-Cats and their Jumpin’, Jivin’ Janies join in the fun! It’s frenetic, giddy and acrobatic—an all-around crowd-pleaser when one is needed most. Laudable and dignified support is also provided by Catherine Rahm who excels as “Ma Murphy”. Just because hers is more of a “supporting” role, that is not to say she doesn’t get to impress—and she categorically does with the Act Two opener, “The Sun’s Gonna Shine”. Transpiring at the bus depot with her broken-hearted and soon to be leaving daughter, she does her best to reassure the girl that despite all that’s happened: “You got to fight–you got to say I’m never gonna stay down!” she entreats “Alice” to have faith in; “You got the night, you got the day–The sun IS gonna shine again!”
Particularly effective is the way by which the digital lighting design—by Mendenhall Productions, frequently ‘punctuates’ the subtext behind what’s happening: Luminous blues seem to suggest night or emotional isolation; purple hints at mourning or despair, while bright yellow is used to indicate happiness or a feeling of festivity. At the other end of the color spectrum, reds are employed to connote everything from passion, romance (–especially when it takes on lighter or ‘pinker’ hues,) with more strident shades signifying even the threat of Damnation itself! Meanwhile, Costume Designer Ramzi Jneid has hit a grand-slam this time with his spot-on period and location specific apparel that typically demonstrate how ‘fashion-wise’, the 1940’s were pretty distinct and impressive in their own right! Call his sartorial choices “Walton’s Chic” (given the classic TV series set in the identical decade and locale,) but perhaps Jneid’s sincere ingenuity is revealed in how he’s made the clothing utilized so colorful—partially by recognizing how post-depression designers favored broad-patterned, ostentatious, ‘print fabrics’ with all kinds of splashy patterns—and this is to say nothing of what passed for more staid ‘office attire’ for both men and women (—which are also seen in abundance here.) Likewise, Wally Huntoon’s shaker-inspired barn set actually appears to have expanded the entire performance space, with the band casually situated along the back wall. Center-stage, two burly barndoors’ open and close as needed to allow appropriate entrances and exits to made (take a peek whenever they open, and you’ll even spy some cornstalks and a scarecrow or two as to imply a vast cornfield just ‘outside’!) As for that seven piece on-stage band (under the direction of Adrian Rangel-Sanchez–who serves double-duty as the resident pianist to boot,) it should come as no surprise that it gives prominence to a banjo (this IS co-written by the man who found fame partially as a result of his nimble banjo-playing abilities; not coincidentally too, it was this very skill that initially stimulated his interest to collaborate with Brickell.)
“I have a vision”: YOU will love this show! Having opened on Saturday, September 28th, “Bright Star” will ‘shine’ through Sunday, October 20th, 2019, at “The Gem Theatre” located at: 12852 on historic Main Street in Garden Grove CA. Showtimes are: Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00 PM, with Sunday Matinees at 2:00 PM. Tickets may be obtained by logging onto: www.onemoreproductions.com , or by phone at: (714) 741-9550 X 221. Discounted tickets are available for Seniors (60 years old and over,) and Children (12 years old and under,) while special “Student Rush” Tickets are also available for Thursday and Friday performances, and may be purchased thirty minutes prior to curtain with a valid student I.D.
Production Stills By Ron Lyon, Courtesy Of Shoko Araki, Damien Lorton And “One More Productions” (www.onemoreproductions.com) Special Thanks To Damien Lorton, Nicole Cassesso, Shoko Araki, Ron Lyon, Heather Holt-Smith, And To The Cast & Crew Of “The Gem Theatre” and “One More Productions” 2019 Staging Of “Bright Star” For Making This Story Possible.