Tuesday, May 2, 2023

"The Defeat of Jesse James" at History Theatre

#TCTheater's favorite musical theater creative team Hatcher and Poling is back! Prolific local playwright Jeffrey Hatcher and longtime local musician/composer Chan Poling have teamed up on a number of musical theater pieces, the most successful being Glensheen, which History Theatre will be remounting once again this summer. Their newest work, began several years ago at the suggestion of History Theatre's recently retired Artistic Director Ron Peluso, is The Defeat of Jesse James. If you're thinking, I've already seen this story, you're not wrong. The story of the famed outlaw, whose career in crime was essentially stopped right here in Minnesota, has been told countless times. But you've never seen it quite like this - as a rock concert. This format allows the creators to not just tell this familiar story, but also comment on it, and our fascination with it. The all-star cast gives their all to this show that is delightfully meta, thought-provoking, and super fun. See it at the History Theatre in downtown St. Paul now through May 28.

You probably know about Jesse James, the infamous outlaw who in the late 19th Century robbed dozens of banks as the leader of the James-Younger gang (which included his brother Frank). And that when his gang decided to rob a bank in Northfield, the town resisted, leading to his first defeat and breaking up the gang. But did you also know that, growing up in the border state of Missouri, Jesse was a Southern sympathizer and believer of the so-called "Lost Cause," and believed he was stealing Northern money as a sort of retribution for the Civil War? Yet some versions of his story portray him as a hero, a sort of Robin Hood figure, glamourizing the outlaw lifestyle. But not this one. The Defeat of Jesse James shows him with all his flaws, as well as the world of war and violence and guns in which he was raised. 

when you marry your cousin who's named after your mother
(Angela Timberman, Adam Qualls, Suzie Juul, photo by Rick Spaulding)
Self-proclaimed "bad boy" Jesse (brilliantly portrayed by Adam Qualls, wildly charismatic but not afraid to go there into the ugly parts of the character) tells us his story directly, starting from the intro number "Jesse James." He's backed by an ensemble who portray all of the characters in the story, as we travel through Jesse's life more or less chronologically in a series of song/scenes. Everyone in the ensemble is fantastic and I wish we could see more of each of them, but they all have little gems throughout the show. We have Dane Stauffer as Frank James (with a great duet "Brothers"), the hilarious Angela Timberman as one tough mother, the always lovely Suzie Juul as Jesse's cousin-wife (yup, you read that right), Jen Burleigh-Bentz in a number of pants roles (because let's face it, there aren't a lot of women in this story), and the hard-working Jordan Leggett, Sasha Andreev, James Ramlet, and Randy Schmeling playing many characters.

Jesse (Adam Qualls) and his band
(photo by Rick Spaulding)
Directed by new Artistic Director Ricard D. Thompson, the show is a rollicking ride through history, with a meta and almost campy wildness to the storytelling, like everyone is in on the joke. The really fun rock musical score includes some country-tinged numbers, some lovely ballads (Zee's solo "You Cut Like a Rose," beautifully delivered by Suzie), and some comedy numbers ("Two Unlucky Stiffs" in which, yes, two corpses sing). The cast is accompanied a rockin' four-piece onstage band led by Music Director Raymond Berg on piano. Austene Van choreographed the dance and movement that is lest Wild West than modern rock.

The set (designed by Joel Sass) looks like the set of a rock concert in an Old West whorehouse, all rich reds and faded glitz. The drum set sits just behind the center stage area, with a balcony on top of it, and swinging saloon doors lead off to one side. The cast is dressed in Western inspired costumes - basic pants and shirts with an array of different vests and jackets for Jesse, prairie skirts for the women, and a few accessories for the ensemble to differentiate characters (costume design by Sonya Berlovitz).

The Defeat of Jesse James is a really unique look at a familiar story. The rock concert format is decidedly modern, with a meta feel as these players are telling the story directly to the audience. I love the choice to use finger guns instead of actual prop guns, first because we already have too many guns in this world, secondly because it furthers the effect that these players are telling the story in a playful and almost fantastical way, rather than realistic. The show doesn't shy away from the ugly parts of Jesse's story - the racism, the political fanatic refusing to accept a loss, the culture of violence that has always been a part of America, the glamorization of guns in the Old West which today has frightening parallels - but it doesn't hit us over the head with them either. This is a fun and entertaining show, but also makes you think about why it is that we keep going back to these crime stories as entertainment. It reminds me a little of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson - satirizing America's past (and present) in the form of a rock musical.