On August 14, 1902, a farmer named William Helms was working out by the river in Iron Mountain collecting lumber when he heard the cry of an infant underneath the railroad trestle. As he moved closer to the water, he discovered a baby in a suitcase along with a handful of clothing and threads. It was clear that the baby was purposefully thrown from the train above, so the farmer rushed the five-day-old child home, where he and his wife would raise it as their own. This tale, known as “The Iron Baby,” has become one of the greatest legends of Southeast Missouri. It was also one of many inspirations that energized Steve Martin and Edie Brickell to write the musical Bright Star, now being produced in “concert version” by Appalachian State University.

Bright Star is a musical about the reunion of a mother and her long-lost son. Set in the 1940s along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina, the story follows the chemistry between Alice (Sara Stone) and Jimmy (Clay Cooper) as they fall in love and have a child out of wedlock. Jimmy’s father, who happens to be the mayor, disapproves and decides to throw the baby off of a train on his way to Raleigh.

In this production, the acting communicated an air of humor throughout the musical, causing some dramatic scenes to come across as woefully comedic. For instance, when the mayor threw the baby off the train, the audience laughed.

The whole cast was jubilant and expressive, particularly the ensemble. The caliber and vocal range of the female voices in the musical are astonishing. Their voices reminded me of the “good old country music” I grew up on. Sara Stone and Lilly Price (as Margo) were the stand-out voices of the show; both ladies’ voices resemble the southern twang of Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn. It is important for women’s voices to be the loudest in this musical because, like Alice, many women during the time were oppressed by a patriarchal society and had to fight for acceptance. Her resilience is to be admired because she was pioneering the way for younger women to come after her. The opening line, “If you knew my story,” serves as a healing redemption to all women who have hurdled unbelievable barriers.

All of the costumes and props are historically representative of North Carolina in the 1940s. The dresses are breathtaking and each costume seemed to mirror the personality of the characters. From hand-sewn outfits, suspenders, and wicker chairs, all aspects of the prop and set design help aid the immersion of the 1940s setting. It was unique to see the illustrations of the costumes before and after the performance in the atrium.

On the stage is a raised U-shaped set of stairs that resembles the stoop of a house, with the orchestra situated visibly behind the stairs. On the wall behind the orchestra is a large white screen that occasionally shows visuals relevant to the action on stage. I felt that this was distracting at times because the imagery used goes back and forth between stylized illustrations of the setting and what appears to be stock footage. The footage of the train specifically felt out of place and it took away from the Ensemble, whose choreography fantastically mimicked that of the train.

A mentionable moment in the performance was when a swing descended from the rafters during a musical number. The use of the swing was well executed and created an alluring effect over the audience as Jimmy and Alice swung out over the crowd. Ironically, in the scenes that follow the swing, we find out Alice is pregnant. I am unsure if the musical number was a sex scene in the original production, but I felt the swing served as an excellent double entendre.

As a resident in Western Carolina, it is not uncommon to see and hear traditional bluegrass folk music and line dancing from Bright Star around town. It was special that I could connect to the musical in that way, however, I am curious as to what impression the bluegrass song and dance left on someone who has never heard North Carolinian folk music before. It only seems appropriate that a musical set in Western North Carolina is performed in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The decision by The Department of Theatre and Dance to produce a condensed “concert version” of Bright Star was entirely decided on COVID restrictions at the time. The Selection Committee chose a musical that could be produced for an online audience via Zoom, Youtube, or an in-person performance. I am thankful for the opportunity to have been able to see this performance in person rather than online, though I initially had a difficult time hearing some of the actors. It was obvious that the cast would put on their masks backstage because on a few occasions the actors walked out on stage wearing them. I believe that fiddling with the masks may have interfered with the microphones, nevertheless, the rough sound quality was only temporary.

Bright Star is a lighthearted and energetic musical about the loss and reunion of love. The musical follows two timelines simultaneously: the story of Alice and the story of her son, Billy. The effectiveness of the nonlinear progression of the story aids the twist at the end, though you may be able to figure it out beforehand.

Since this production was a condensed version of the musical, I felt lost at times and had to fill in the gaps in the story that were chosen to be left out. I was so impressed with the production as a whole that I would happily see a full-length version in the future.

Bright Star continues through Sunday, November 7. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.