"Will Success Spoil Homefolks?"

By Robert Donnan, Chapel Hill News
Photos by Lyn Whitley
(Excerpts of review first published in January, 1975)

NEW YORK--Subterranean Manhattan makes you anticipate the deluge.  Even on the subway, the cold drizzle above ground is mirrored in the dull stares of passengers, like extras in a Fellini nightmare.

When the glitter of Times Square injects a neon sting into Saturday night, street life begins to surface and dance to the pulse of the City.  You forget about the cold just watching.

Across the blacktop from the Westside Theatre at 407 West 43rd Street, a striking young woman stands, hands on hips, to survey the 10 o’clock theatre crowd.  Several men shake their heads to deny her soliciting glance as they pass her on the curb.

A different breed of outlaw is encamped within the Westside.  Upstairs, saloon girls sashay across a wooden floor littered with peanut shells.  Jim Wann and Bland Simpson have taken the town by storm with their hit musical, Diamond Studs, based on the life of Jesse James.

Tonight, middle-aged Yankees mingle with the 37 Tar Heels who have taken the Amtrak Silver Star out of Raleigh to visit local boys made good in the Big Apple.  Four days earlier, New York Times drama critic Clive Barnes had raved about the play in a review that began: "Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes!”

The show has shed some of the tired jokes about Dido and the Aeneid, tightening its belt after Chapel Hill, and has turned on even cynical New Yorkers with its Southern-flavored innocence and romanticism.

After that tumultuous opening night, every major record label with offices in New York rang up the company’s lawyers to discuss recording a sound track album.

There’s talk of a London engagement, road tours on the domestic front, and even a production in Australia.  Wann and Simpson are slated for a Today show appearance, perhaps later this week.

The question now appears to be, will success spoil Diamond Studs?

Piano player Simpson, who collaborated with Wann on the music and lyrics, doesn’t think so, despite the show’s Cinderella success.

“Everyone’s tried to keep their heads about it,’ he said after a performance last Saturday, “but it does feel good to be back under more favorable circumstances.”

Simpson quit New York four years ago to return to his native Chapel Hill after recording a solo album on Columbia that never quite made it.  (The playbill reports that in 1972, “Kingfish” Simpson was captured in the Gulfstream and was sold two years later to C. C. Porkbarrel for one gallon of Stokes County white liquor.)

The return has indeed been in triumph.  Thursday in Chapel Hill, Carolina Coffee Shop regulars excitedly read aloud from yet another rave review, this one published in the current issue of Newsweek.  “I’m really jealous,” admitted one aspiring artist.  “Just think, I know someone famous,” gushed another.

“Studsmania” has gripped Chapel Hill and Gotham alike.  The two bands in the show, the Southern States Fidelity Choir and the Red Clay Ramblers, built quite a sizable following at the Cat’s Cradle, a local bar partly owned by Wann, before leaving for the Big Apple.  The town still claims them for its own.

Simpson credits the loyal support for much of the energy behind the play.  “It’s where we got our start,” he said.  Director John Haber also commented on the North Carolina mystique surrounding the play: “Even the people we’ve dealt with a lot--like the Chelsea Theatre--are quite intrigued by the N. C. chauvinism,” he said.  “It’s quite unusual.”

The music--both original and traditional--evokes a lost era in America’s past when the outlaw was a Robin Hood, an unreconstructed rebel, who robbed trains and eluded the law.

The romantic mystique of the play is inextricably linked to the vitality of the music, the charisma of the actors, and the appeal of the outlaw legend.  (The composers deem their tunes a mellow blend of “southern stomp” and “swamp rock.”)

Regardless of the genre, the play is generating enough excitement on Broadway for Newsweek to exclaim: “There isn’t a flat moment in the show, which as its own sneaky sophistication, epitomized by Patricia Birch’s sunny choreography--enough to make a New York mugger cakewalk to his next dark alley.”

According to Haber, the cast hasn’t had much time for sightseeing in New York.  “Last week, we had Monday and Tuesday off, the first time people have had any time to feel relaxed,” Haber said, adding that he can’t even really remember Christmas and New Year’s.  “My life has been at the Westside Theatre.”

The show clearly shows much hard work in rehearsal.  The storyline is now far more coherent and better complemented by the musical numbers.  A Chapel Hill favorite, “Saloon Piano” featuring Simpson, has been dropped, but several outstanding new tunes have been added.  “The show is basically set now, Haber said, “but we were making changes right up until opening night.”

During intermission last Saturday night, diminutive Madelyn Smoak (Belle Starr) said her stay in New York has left her in a state of shock, and she’s had to learn to conserve her energies to meet the demands of a rigorous eight-performance week.  “I still find it hard to believe we’re here,” the former Wildflower Kitchen waitress said.  “Everything has gone so well.”

Madelyn paused to plant a kiss on the cheek of an old friend.  “If you want some real action, check out 42nd Street, “ she quipped Mae West style.

Cakewalker extraordinaire Bill Smith said the Coffee Shop crew had mailed him a care package including a substantial ration of Captain’s Wafers for his birthday.

And the entire cast had their morale boosted this week when Tommy Thompson learned from the Philosophy Department at N. C. State that he will be able to stay with the show.  “He’s quite relieved about that,” Haber said.  “He talked to his chairman yesterday, and it appears that the guy who’s been standing in for him will take over his classes.”

Haber also said the recording arrangements should be completed within two weeks.  “We want to get it out as soon as possible to help draw the crowds,” he said.

So far, the capacity crowds have been the type most likely lured to the show by the Clive Barnes seal of approval.  (Barnes’ name adorns the marquees of many theatres and movie houses along Broadway, even when his comments are only mildly favorable.)

“He seems to have a huge effect,” Haber said, “a lot of influence.  The review brought out a lot of people in the business.  No one knew about our show.  It just came out of nowhere.”

--(Ed. note: Illegible paragraph omitted as well as an irrelevant passage)--

Wann is the central figure--Jesse James--onstage.  The reviews have all noted his charismatic manner and audience appeal.  “Singing words on stage is really the most difficult thing I try to do,” he once told Ward.  “A good night singing is rare.  Singing is simple when you’re singing to yourself.

“That’s the state you have to get into up there on stage.  Imagine that you’re all by yourself.  The times I’ve sung the best I felt a great distance from the people in the room.  I felt like I was out somewhere devoting all myself to the art of the song.”

Haber’s greatest concern now is to keep the show’s vitality and momentum alive through a grueling six-month engagement.

“I said throughout rehearsing the show has to be maintained,” he said.  “The minute it starts to slip, we’ll have to rehearse it again.  Now that a lot of people are hearing about it, their expectations are higher.  You can’t disappoint the people.”

Judging from the raucous energy imparted to the Tar Heel contingency, evidenced by their saloon-style impromptu piano sing-alongs staged during the Silver Star’s journey home, the show gives off enough upbeat vibes to rock the rails around the globe.

(Article from the collection of Rambler fan Roy C. Dicks)

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September, 2003