Book by Jim Wann, music and lyrics by Jim Wann and Bland Simpson
Directed by Lora Chase
At Turtle Lane Theatre
Newton, MA (617) 244-0169 Through August 25th

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

"Diamond Studs-- the Saga of Jesse James" , which ran for about a year off Broadway in 1975, is an odd little musical. Not so very little, at that: nineteen actors, most of them doubling or tripling roles, plus an on stage bluegrass orchestra. The stage of the Turtle Lane Theatre is overflowing. But the show feels small: minor, quirky.

Some of the James saga is narrated, story-theatre style, and a series of scenes with a minimum of dialogue sketch in the action.. The score, some of which is traditional music and some composed for the occasion by Bland Simpson and Jim Wann (of "Pump Boys and Dinettes" fame) mostly has the static, just-the-facts delivery of an old-time multi-verse back-country ballad--- although there's a cakewalk, a shapenote hymn, and a hoe-down for variety. The second act wanders all over, and features an extended skit set in a B-movie version of Mexico. (!) The musical is strung together in a very sophisticated, postmodern jump-around-in-the-chronology way, and played as if it were a parody -- but what is it a parody of, exactly? The theatre piece it brings to mind is "The Beggar's Opera", the John Gay opus on which the Brecht/Weill "Threepenny" is based. But "Beggar's" is very pointed political satire, with clear targets and a tight plot. "Diamond Studs" seems to have not much of a point, and no plot at all.

It does have a story, of sorts. Jesse James' father was hung from a tree by Union soldiers, and Jesse's mother Zerelda ( Bobsie Minton ) is a monster of self-righteous blood-lust. Zerelda sends the eager Jesse ( Richard Repetta ) off to kill Yankees at age sixteen. Even after Lee has surrendered, Jesse continues the guerrilla raids he made with Quantrill, robbing the trains and holding up the banks of a commercial society he sees as the enemy. Jesse employs various cousins in his gang, is a hero to saloon society, and settles into "The House on the Hill" to marry sweet little down home cousin Zee ( Lisa Anne Nicolai ) and have a couple of kids. Jesse eludes the law for nearly twenty years, until he is betrayed by Bob Ford, one of his gang members ( Carl Phillips ): "that dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard, and laid poor Jesse in his grave." The title, "Diamond Studs", refers to the "Cakewalk Into Kansas City" first act finale celebrating Jesse's ill-gotten gains, while the second act finale features a white-suited Elvis-like Jesse ascending to heaven "When I Hear the Call".

The Turtle Lane design team of Danehy, Brinkert , and O'Connor should take a bow, because their saloon set is very handsome. Still, I was disappointed that the saloon doesn't surround the audience and that the actors never really try to enlist the audience in the action. Folk music becomes a heck of a lot more interesting when we all get to clap in time or join in on the chorus.

On the plus side, Turtle Lane's orchestra director, Jerry Weene , has put together a toe-tapping knee-slapping banjo, mandolin, fiddle and autoharp'd country-Western ensemble, and sees to it that they play the bejesus out of the score. And in Richard Repetta, Turtle Lane has a starring actor who can pass as myth material. Every word Repetta sings is clear and every move he makes is interesting, even when the significance of the words and movements remains a mystery. The production could use a second Starr, to play the notorious Belle with May West panache-- but alas, Belle's "I Don't Need a Man to Know I'm Good" is less than convincing. Still, it looks as if outlaw territory is a man's world. The women of the company generally have not much of interest to do, and unfortunately settle for just an approximation of what they do have. Director Lora Chase 's simplified choreography is all very well --but shouldn't dance hall girls be able to dance?

David Bellenoit as Frank James, Patrick English as Cole Younger, and John Kelly as Jim, the youngest Younger, all make a good impression, singing out in solos and blending well in close harmony. Music director Thomas Hojanacki deserves some of the credit for that. David Bobick and Donald Rainville make a strong impression as C.C. Porkbarrel and Bernie Greencheese--- hammy and overripe as their monikers.

"Diamond Studs" is a pleasant enough summer's evening entertainment, more like a review or a floor show than a real musical. I suspect it has the potential to be much more than that, if the Turtle Lane company can find in their interaction with their audiences over the next month or so a clear shape and purpose for all the bits and pieces that have gone in to it.