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Enjoy some southern hospitality with PEMCo’s ‘Bright Star’

| Friday, March 25, 2022

Maggie Klaers | The Observer
Image sources: courtesy of Pasquerilla East Musical Company

With the curtains up and the spotlight shining, Alice Murphy (Libby White) opened up Pasquerilla East Musical Company’s (PEMCo) spring show, “Bright Star.” As she sings, the stage opens up, introducing the audience to a resilient female lead and the beautiful Appalachian landscape she inhabits.

I was kindly invited by PEMCo to attend their first dress rehearsal of the show last Wednesday. As somebody who’d never heard anything about “Bright Star” and much less about bluegrass music and North Carolina, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I didn’t know how the company would make a musical about some country bumpkins emotionally compelling, even though it was originally written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell. 

But PEMCo did it. In fact, I was in for a treat. I got chills from the opening number.

During a conversation with first-time director Gracie Conlon, she told me how much she loved the show.

“Home can bring us hope in the darkest of times, and ‘Bright Star’ poignantly brings that theme to life with its tale woven with hope, love, tragedy and loss,” she said.

I’d say it touches on even more than Conlon said, confronting themes of education, generational trauma, unexpected pregnancy, feminism and faith. The musical is also deeply inspired by the stunning natural environment of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the close-knit culture of the South.

The musical follows two plotlines set in Appalachia — Alice Murphy during the Jazz Age (1923) and Billy Cane (Luc Plaisted) during the aftermath of WWII (1946). Their paths merge when Billy returns home from war. He decides to submit some of his writing to the Asheville Southern Journal, introducing him to the intimidating magazine editor, Alice. As Alice mentors Billy, the audience gets a sense that she’s carrying some emotional baggage but can’t exactly place where it originates.

Kathryn Strimbu | The Observer
Alice Murphy (Libby White) and Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Austin Hanley) perform “Whoa, Mama.”

The production team clearly collaborated to deliver quality support for the cast. The set design sports wooden cut-outs that create the silhouette of mountains and rolling pieces of furniture that fully immerse the characters into new settings. The costume design is inspired by the time period with actors sporting humble workwear and 1940s hair-dos. They even have a fog machine for a particular scene!

They compliment each other phenomenally and enhance the audience experience. Every time the main villain, Mayor Josiah Dobbs (Andrew Crecca), steps on stage, red lighting looms over the mountains — a color which also haunts Alice”s costuming. Deliberate and thoughtful choices like this on the behalf of the production take this musical to the next level. 

Additionally, the orchestra did a fantastic job supporting the ensemble. I appreciated their work most in “A Man’s Gotta Do – Reprise.” The orchestra supports a set change during this song as the ensemble rearranges the scene. They provide depth and power to the ensemble’s fantastic musical numbers.

Luc Plaisted does a fantastic job playing Billy Cane, who still remains hopeful after his time in the army. Abby Urban adds dimension to Billy’s love interest, Margo Crawford — Billy’s supportive childhood friend who encourages him to go to the city to follow his dreams, even if that sends him away from her. Both actors shine together in “Always Will,” which showcases their on-stage chemistry and singing abilities. 

The cast performing in “Please, Don’t Take Him” also deserves notice. Alice and her mom (Caitlyn Cano) sing powerfully in harmony while Daddy Murphy (Carl Knable) and Mayor Dobbs conspire against them. Andrew Crecca’s performance as the despicable Mayor Dobbs is particularly convincing, leaving me with my jaw on the floor by the end of the first act.

Lucy Grant (Annie Griffin) and Daryl Ames (Bryce Bustamante) are a fantastic comedic duo that add levity to the darker themes of the musical. Daryl has some laugh-out-loud lines that quickly made him my favorite character. Griffin adds charm to her role with a stand-out performance in “Another Round.” In this dance number, the ensemble performs elaborate choreography and sings in southern accents, slapping their legs and stomping on the ground to add percussive bluegrass elements.

Libby White steals the show as Alice Murphy. She has a beautiful voice and plays her character with enough conviction that she brought me to tears. She inspired me to listen to the original cast recording of “Bright Star.” Although White’s voice lacks some of the experience of the original Alice (Carmen Cusack), she holds her own against a professional nearly two times her senior. White sings “At Long Last” with more hope and optimism — genuine emotion. She shines like a bright star up on stage.

If anything’s for certain, this show is “A blessin’ unequivocal, truly it’s a miracle!” You should definitely come to see their show in Washington Hall Main Stage at 7:00 p.m. Friday or Saturday. This is an extremely impressive directorial debut from Conlon, and the hard work of the PEMCo members deserves to be celebrated. 

Musical: “Bright Star”

Director: Gracie Conlon

Produced by: Pasquerilla East Musical Company

Starring: Libby White, Luc Plaisted

Where: Washington Hall Main Stage

When: Wed. Mar. 23 at 7:00 PM

Shamrocks: 4 out of 5

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About Claire Lyons

Claire is a sophomore from Fort Worth, TX studying Political Science and English. She is currently serving as Interim Scene Editor for The Observer. She loves Sufjan Stevens, indie movies and peanut M&Ms.

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