The Life of Jesse James
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‘Diamond Studs,’ a Saloon Musical, Is Sheer Delight
DIAMOND STUDS, The Life of Jesse James, a Saloon Musical. Music and lyrics by Bland Simpson and Jim Wann; book by Jim Wann; musical numbers staged by Patricia Birch; directed by John L. Haber. Presented by the Chelsea Theater Center of Brooklyn. At the Westside Theater, 407 West 43d Street.
Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! “Diamond Studs,” which is something called “a saloon musical,” turned up last night at the Chelsea Theater, and it turned up trumps with five aces and a full house of jokers. It is unadulterated delight, which, together with adulterated delight, was the way the West was run.
It is claimed to be the story of Jesse James, his life, loves, death, and other irrelevant biographical material. Halfway through the evening, it occurred to me that I ought to do some research on Jesse James—five minutes later it occurred to me that it didn’t matter.
The Chelsea Theater which, in friendly collaboration with Harold Prince gave us “Candide” among other goodies—is a great believer in environmental theater. The company takes a play, or a musical, or some otherwise indescribable histrionic happening, and builds a theater around it. This is what Chelsea Theater has done with “Diamond Studs.” The whole theater has become a sort of Western saloon—personally I would have appreciated a few spittoons and a little sawdust on the floor—but apart from that, the atmosphere is great. You have tables, drinks, and dancing girls, and this hilarious, naïve and 128 per cent American show. The whole evening is a gas.
The important thing about “Diamond Studs” is its musical authenticity. We Eastern slickers get easily fobbed off by Country and Western music, but the two main participating groups here, the Southern States Fidelity Choir and the Red Clay Ramblers, are authentic almost to the point of musicology and beyond.
The book of the musical—and it is a loose-leaf book—has been prepared by Jim Wann, who has also collaborated with Bland Simpson on the music and lyrics of the original numbers (some of the songs are antebellum), and the show has been directed—with, one would guess, an inspired minimum of interference—by John L Haber. The musical numbers, with cakewalks around the bar and up precipitous staircases (the braver members of the audience can participate) have been adroitly devised by Patricia Birch.
What is the charm and the gusto of this show? Why cannot you keep your feet still, or your mind from smiling? Freshness, yes. Innocence, certainly. But more, a real view of an America lost. A day when—at least in popular mythology—train robbers, bank robbers, and assorted miscreants had a touch of Robin Hood to them.
Remember the picture of the James gang in sordid death—lined up like nasty carcasses, ugly and brutal, caught on the departure station to their maker. Okay, that was the real pioneer, America. “Diamond Studs” is the legend—and what a lovely legend it is to spend an evening with.
The music is super. Even people—and this writer is among them—who are not devotees of the paper pap and pulverized passion of so much commercialized country and Western music, will probably exult in the musical richness of this funny and sassy score.
The actors are the musicians. The act horrifically, but they play like angels auditioning for Gabriel. The acting is so bad that it has to be good—no rank amateurs can be that rank or that amateur. Such badness takes time, experience and trouble. And they are so utterly endearing—and you don’t even get that nice without rehearsal.
The music ranges from country fiddle, more banjos and guitars than a good soul can imagine, harmonicas, drums on washboards. The songs are belted out (through microphones regrettably) with all the confidence of a parade of Hell’s Angels pursued by a posse of horses.
The performers were great, but should in no way be praised. They are just people hanging around a saloon having a great time. I am not even sure they should be paid. (Knowing the financial precariousness of our institutional theatres in New York, I am not even sure they are being paid—maybe they are just given beer, pretzels and popcorn and allowed to sleep on the floor.)
However, a few must be mentioned. Mr Wann, himself, as Jesse James has a way with a guitar, a way with a song and a way with an audience. And, everyone else. The playbill is a little confusing, to say the least, and I cannot identify a huge man with a red beard and a fine talent. I can identify Mike Sheehan as a slinky Pinkerton man, the diminutive bombshell, Madelyn Smoak, as Belle Starr, and Bland Simpson as a character charmingly called Porkbarrell. But just go and see the people, and they will become friends.
This, in a very different way, is
the best show of its type since “Jacques Brel,” and it will deservingly
become a cult. Be among the first of the cultured.