On Theater: ‘Bright Star’ flickers at the GEM

Young Alice Murphy (Nicole Cassesso) and Jimmy Dobbs (Nick Seigel) in Steve Martin and Edie Brickell's "Bright Star," playing at the Gem Theater in Garden Grove through Oct. 20.
(Ron Lyon)

Legend has it that back in 1902, a baby tucked into a valise was fished out of a North Carolina river by a farmer who eventually adopted the tot. The child grew up leading a normal life, married, had a son and died at age 50.

This lad, dubbed the Iron Mountain Baby, provided the inspiration for the musical “Bright Star” by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, a countrified concoction currently occupying the stage of Garden Grove’s GEM Theater.

It’s a curious choice by director Damien Lorton, who also serves as musical director and co-choreographer. The show’s time element shifts back and forth without warning from the early 1920s to the mid-40s with little character transformation while its back-country denizens plow through a hardscrabble, borderline melodramatic existence.

The cast of Steve Martin and Edie Brickell's musical "Bright Star," playing at the Gem Theater in Garden Grove through Oct. 20.
(Ron Lyon)

Elevating and energizing, the GEM production features some splendid performances capped by the marvelous Nicole Cassesso, who dominates both time periods as Alice Murphy, alternately a stern publishing house editor and a lusty teenage girl who gets “into trouble” one fateful evening.

The focus sways between her character and that of Billy Cane, a World War II veteran determined to be a writer, solidly enacted by Brandon Taylor Jones. His erstwhile sweetheart Margo is deftly underplayed by Kelly Rosales, who contributes engaging vocals.

Contrasting the gloomy atmosphere are some wild and woolly production numbers staged by Lorton and co-choreographer Heather Holt-Smith. The most impressive of the lot is the spirited “Another Round,” which spotlights a terrific Katie Walsh, who plays the sassy, seductive publisher’s assistant, relishing a night on the town.

Stark melodrama is introduced by the overbearing Ryan Addison as the Bible-thumping, hard-drinking town mayor and father of the earnest young man (Nick Seigel) who’s involved with Alice. Addison chills the heart during his hateful rampage which closes the first act.

Billy Cane (Brandon Taylor Jones) returns home from the war to find his father (Duane Thomas) in GEM Theater's production of "Bright Star" in Garden Grove.
(Ron Lyon)

Kinder and gentler folk are nicely played by Duane Thomas as Billy’s father and Chris Harper and Catherine Rahm as Alice’s parents. Tad Fujioka has some zinger-filled moments as Walsh’s smarmy co-worker in the publishing house.

Playgoers having difficulty getting into the show’s spirit should be roused by the “big reveal” near the climax that will send them home smiling. It’s a backwoods yarn, improbable but based in fact, set to toe-tapping music at the GEM Theater.


What: “Bright Star”

Where: GEM Theater, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove

When: Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays and Sunday at 2 and 8 p.m. through Oct. 20

Cost: Starts at $26

Information: (714) 741-9550;