Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
So, I arrived at History Theatre's world premiere production of The Defeat of Jesse James ready for to be educated about the man behind the legend, but even more ready to be entertained. The musical is the work of playwright Jeffrey Hatcher and composer-lyricist Chan Poling, the duo behind History Theatre's pride and joy (and frequently remounted), Glensheen. I anticipated the same tongue-in-cheek approach to the gristly subject, with rock-solid storytelling and a tuneful score–and I was absolutely right. If anything, I found The Defeat of Jesse James even a notch above Glensheen, which is saying something.
The show opens with Jesse welcoming us as the emcee of his own biography, told as a rock and roll show that goes back to his youth in southwestern Missouri. The Civil War was in full bore and that part of the state–including Jesse's family–were strongly sympathetic to the Confederacy. Jesse's older brother Frank was with the bushwhackers, paramilitaries that waged guerrilla warfare against the Union army. When a trio of Union soldiers show up at Jesse's home looking for Frank, his hard-bitten mother Zerelda refuses to give him up, but her husband (Jesse's stepfather) caves in. Jesse goes off in pursuit of those soldiers before they can catch his big brother. After that, Frank welcomes Jesse into the fold–and the James Gang is born.
After the defeat of the Confederacy and the arrival of carpetbaggers from the north, the brothers pick up accomplices and switch from bushwacking to bank-robbing, killing just being part of the job. Their escapades, especially Jessie's, are glamorized in the newspaper columns of journalist John Newman Edwards, another Southern loyalist who depicts the thieves and killers as latter-day Robin Hoods for taking money from the rich (code for Northerners), though there never evidence that their ill-gotten gains were distributed to the poor. When Jesse is wounded in one of their raids, his cousin Zerelda–named after his mother–nurses him back to health, and Jesse and Z, as she is called, wind up married, or as close to being married as Jessie can abide. The gang carries on as if invincible until the thwarted hold-up in Northfield where, as Jesse puts it "I met my Waterloo."
Act One ends on the cusp of the Northfield raid, and I pondered, at intermission, "What's left besides the raid? Must be a short second act." But no, Hatcher and Poling have some dandy treats up their sleeves, with a faux devotional number by the Northfield Church choir, a specialty song and dance for two gang members killed in the raid, celebrating the irony that they will be remembered for being killed in the infamous event (cleverly titled "Two Unlucky Stiffs"), Jesse's rumination on how he will be regarded ("My Place in History"), the falling out between Frank and Jesse after Northfield ("Big Mouth"), hilarious insights from Zerelda into how a frontier mother becomes so hard bitten ("House Full of ..."), a revelation that the James family lineage is not as lily white after all, and the final demise of our hero Jesse. It is a full second act alright, each number placing the mythology of the James Gang and their ilk in a different light, while the entertainment quotient keeps racking up points.
It is an understatement to say that Poling–whose history includes being a founding member of The Suburbs, a hugely popular rock and roll band whose heyday was the 1970s and 80s but is still active (they reopened the legendary First Avenue music club after the COVID shutdown) and is presently also a member of The New Standards, a jazz combo whose annual Holiday shows have become a prize ticket–knows his way around a melody. His songs here are in a southern rock vein, fitting as rock music is sometimes associated with an outlaw lifestyle. His lyrics work to reveal characters to us and are chock full of laugh lines. Hatcher's book is rolled out as Jesse's narration of his life, so we are viewing it from his, arguably warped, perspective–but Hatcher deftly embroiders the tale with enough sense of what is going on in the world around him, that we are always a step ahead of him. The sense that we see him as the delusional creation of a place and time in history allows us to have sympathy for him, not withstanding how often his words and deeds appall us.
That depiction is greatly abetted by Adam Qualls, giving what must be a career-best performance. Qualls is always adept at comic roles, and here he raises it to a new level of clueless understatement. His physicality as Jessie James in the guise of a rock star reminds me of Matthew McConaughey. Qualls is surrounded by a terrific gang of actors, with high honors to Angela Timberman as Mother Zerelda, who gets through the entire show without ever letting a smile cross her hard-bitten lips and stops the show with "House Full of ...". Close behind her is Dane Stauffer as Frank James, the big brother Jesse idolizes and then surpasses in notoriety.
James Ramlet is well cast as Edwards, the incendiary journalist, his deep basso voice lending authority to the fabrications he publishes, and Suzie Juul is delightful as Z, a tenaciousness frontier woman determined to get what she wants without ever putting a crack in her sweet veneer. Jordan Leggett has little to do for a good deal of the show, but then packs a punch as an unexpected branch of Jesse's family tree with his big number, "That's Me." Sasha Andreev, Jen Burleigh-Bentz and Randy Schmeling, all talented performers, contribute top-rate work in the other roles.
Richard D. Thompson has directed at History Theatre before, including just last season (Not in Our Neighborhood!), but this is his first time helming a production since he assumed the role of History Theatre's artistic director at the start of the year. Thompson draws upon the abundant humor in The Defeat of Jesse James, keeping it light and consistently engaging while assuring that nuggets of historical content are never lost. The choreography by Austene Van (a tireless wonder who also directed Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill that opened at Yellow Tree just the week before) is lively and rhythmic, an apt blend of the western outlaw and rock and roll show motifs. The score is played with verve by an on-stage four-piece band led by music director Raymond Berg.
Sonya Berlovitz has designed eye-catching costumes, and Joel Sass provides a set that seems like a rock studio wallpapered in well-seasoned leather. Karin Olson's lighting works with the set to create a range of images that form the saga of Jesse James, and the production has clear, crisp sound thanks to C. Andrew Mayer's work in that realm.
The Defeat of Jessie James is a banquet of entertainment with a side order of history. It deserves every bit as much as Glensheen to become a recurring audience favorite. Given that interest in its subject matter is not so limited by region as Glensheen, it stands a better chance of finding favor anywhere it is staged. Jesse thought he would be remembered for crimes, relieving the North of its wealth as a means of honoring the lost cause of the South. I, however, will henceforth remember him for his terrific way with song, dance, and telling a tale.
The Defeat of Jesse James runs through May 28, 2023, at History Theatre, 30 East 10th Street, Saint Paul MN Tickets: Tiers 1-3: adults - $48 - $63; seniors (age 60+) $43 - $58; under 30 - $40; Golden Circle tickets: $70, no discounts. For tickets and information, please call 651-292-4323 or visit historytheatre.com.
Book: Jeffrey Hatcher; Music and Lyrics: Chan Poling; Director: Richard D. Thompson; Music Director: Raymond Berg; Music Arrangements: Robert Elhai; Choreographer: Austene Van; Scenic Design: Joel Sass; Costume Design: Sonya Berlovitz; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Video Design: Leslie Ritenour; Properties Design: Kirby Moore; Intimacy Coach: Elizabeth M. Desotelle; Stage Manager: Lee Johnson; Assistant Stage Manager: Jaya Robillard.
Cast: Sasha Andreev (Clell Miller, Robert Ford, ensemble), Jen Burleigh-Bentz (Bill Chadwell, Kitty, Allen Pinkerton, ensemble), Suzie Juul (Zee, ensemble), Jordan Leggett (Perry Samuel, ensemble), Adam Qualls (Jesse James), James Ramlet (Bloody Bill Anderson, John Newman Edwards, ensemble), Randy Schmeling (John Sheets, Heywood, ensemble), Dane Stauffer (Frank James), Angela Timberman (Mother Zerelda, ensemble).