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Where not so long ago, black-and-white cows held sway, The Barn at Fearrington Village is now full of cowboys, as Mojo Productions brings back to the stage the mega-hit of Chapel Hill and New York City, Diamond Studs: The Life of Jesse James, the musical retelling of the life of Jesse James (1847-82). Thirteen actor/musicians, more than twice that number of instruments, and a passel of saloon girls/dancers literally took The Barn by storm Saturday night, restoring to brimming life the legend of Chapel Hill’s “western,” as made popular by the duo that wrote it and the bluegrass band, the Red Clay Ramblers.
With book by Jim Wann and music and lyrics by Wann and Bland Simpson, “Diamond Studs reigned supreme at Chapel Hill’s Ranch Restaurant during the mid-1970s. This rendition focuses modern talent on an age-old story (1870-82), and does the work proud, with as much fiddle, dobro, and mandolin as the tiny stage can take, and an energy and enthusiasm that is rampantly contagious.
Mojo’s co-founder Franklin Golden takes on Jesse himself, with long-time guitar-and-band partner Michael Holland playing his brother Frank. There’s not a character onstage that doesn’t play at least two instruments, and that’s at minimum. And, for a couple of reasons, this cast plays out the entire work on what you might call an empty set. First, because the songs and music tell the story, there’s no real set; second, because there are too many instruments on stage to allow for flats and furniture.
Other musicians take on other roles, some up to three or four, while adding their own talents to the musical assembly. Drummer Justin Ansley plays Bob Ford, James’s nemesis; keyboardist and member of the “Chicken Wire Gang” Greg Bell, plays the notorious Pancho Villa; fiddle and banjo player Joseph Decosimo plays the Warden; and song-belter Taz Halloween plays Belle Starr. Two noted members of James’s gang, Cole and Jim Younger, are played by Miles Andrews and Rick Hauchman, two members of the local Bluegrass band, Big Fat Gap.
Musical director Creighton Irons takes on three roles while at the keyboard; string multi-instrumentalist Carl Jones portrays Major Edwards of the Confederacy; and Mitch Rothrock, electric guitar and bass, plays William Clark Quantrill. Ben Walters plays the youngest Younger, Bob, while pickin’ on the banjo; and stage and screen actress and singer Amanda Watkins plays Jesse’s wife, Zee.
The music that flows from this bluegrass bonanza is quick, sassy, tremendous fun, and amazingly engaging. Hand-clapping, head-shaking, knee-bouncing, dance-in-your-chair energy is palpable. Shucks, partner, this ain’t toe-tappin’ music; this is raise-the-Barn-roof, foot-stompin’ music, the kind that makes you wish square dancing was still popular.
Director Nick Decell and stage manager Nelson Schwab join this team straight from Company Carolina at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Such background proves to be invaluable when one considers that, just the logistics of this work — moving actors and musicians about the stage scene to scene — is a stage manager’s nightmare. But these two kept the music, and the cast, moving smoothly and swiftly, and together with this amazing musical talent made a two-hour show seem much shorter.
Nevertheless, highlights were many; the main theme, “Diamond Studs (Cakewalk in Kansas City)” brought out the saloon gals and got the audience into a foot-stomping frenzy. Belle Starr’s signature song, “I Don’t Need a Man to Know I’m Good,” sung by Taz Halloween as Belle, brought the house down; and as Miles Andrews swapped hat for bonnet to play Mrs. Zerelda James, the boys’ mama, the fiddles caught fire as the gang sang “Mama Fantastic: You’re the Woman I Need.”
This musical entertainment is as hot as it gets, in a venue that seems built just for it. The audience can see the tin roof right through the rafters; the walls are solid wood decorated with lattice; there’s more than enough room for tables as well as chairs for the attendees, and The Barn is big enough to really raise a ruckus when the place is packed, as it was Saturday night. Fearrington really throws out the welcome mat, too, with a lighted tree-lined access and ample parking just alongside Fearrington Village, where many a theatergoer was seen window shopping afterward.
Mojo Productions, producers of such classics as Good Ol’ Girls and Pump Boys and Dinettes, seem to have another major hit on their hands. The newly finished four-lane highway running south from Chapel Hill to Fearrington Village, is going to get quite a work-out in the next couple of weeks. Make sure you call and get your reservations to see this reprise of a great musical now; you might not get a second chance!
Mojo Productions presents Diamond Studs: The Life of Jesse James Tuesday-Friday, Jan. 31-Feb. 3, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 4, at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 5, at 2 p.m. at The Barn at Fearrington Village, 2000 Fearrington Village, Pittsboro, North Carolina. $20. 919/545-5701 or http://www.tix.com/Schedule.asp?OrganizationNumber=711. Diamond Studs: http://www.redclayramblers.com/foolmoon/diamondstuds.htm [inactive 3/08]. This Performance: http://www.studsatthebarn.com/ [inactive 2/06]. Fearrington Village: http://fearringtonvillage.com/ [inactive 10/07]. “The Ballad of Jesse James”: http://www.jessejames.org/ballad.html [inactive 7/06].