"Off-Beat Off-Broadway Musicals"

By Barbara Mackay
The Saturday Review
March 22, 1975

Diamond Studs, for instance--a production of the Chelsea Theater Center of Brooklyn--has drawn large crowds to the spare Westside Theater, on Ninth Avenue and Forty-third Street.  It is loosely built around the story of Jesse James’s exploits: The dates and places in Jesse’s life are simply announced, and little scenes are acted out to portray the events that led to his death.

Diamond Studs is less a play than an excuse for some excellent bluegrass music, performed by the Red Clay Ramblers and the Southern States Fidelity Choir, most of whose members hail from North Carolina and are involved with folk music for the love of it.  Now that their show is a box-office success, they’re playing for money as well as fun, but before this, Diamond Studs’ cast earned their livings in a variety of ways: One actor owned a natural-foods restaurant, the mandolin player worked in a public library, the banjo picker taught philosophy, and the drummer was painting houses and minding hogs before coming north.

Diamond Studs’ appeal depends as much on the atmosphere in the theater as on the production itself  By removing the usual rows of chairs and moving the stage to the side of a rectangular room, the Chelsea has created the rough illusion of a nineteenth-century Missouri barroom--an illusion that is helped considerably by the non-illusory bar in the lobby.  Small wooden tables and chairs cluster around the stage, and bar girls sashay and cakewalk through the audience.  Since they were coached by well-known choreographer Patricia Birch, these girls are undoubtedly the most professional sashayers and cakewalkers in town.

As a play, or even as a musical, Diamond Studs leaves much to be desired.  But its washboard, harmonica, and mandolin offer a lively alternative--assuming you like bluegrass--to the swoopy violins and ear-splitting electrified guitars of most current musicals.

Madelyn Smoak and Tommy Thompson

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

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