Elvis had Col. Tom Parker, an illegal Dutch immigrant who became his manager and mythmaker. Jesse James had John Newman Edwards, a journalist who helped create his enduring folk legend.
A bank robber and killer who married his cousin, 19th-century outlaw Jesse James, played on screen by the likes of Tyrone Power and Brad Pitt, has held the public's imagination as a sort of Robin Hood. But that dashing image comes up for a sharp reappraisal in "The Defeat of Jesse James," a new musical by Chan Poling and Jeffrey Hatcher that's rocking out onstage at St. Paul's History Theatre.
This Jesse (Adam Qualls with insouciant menace) is a craven, solicitous cad who starts in glory and ends in death. His exploits and demise get an engagingly entertaining staging by artistic director Richard Thompson.
The show is a takedown, not a song-and-dance hagiography.
The conceit is that Jesse is doing a farewell concert about his exploits before his downfall in Northfield, Minn. Episodes of his life float into view in between musical numbers pumped out by a nimble Ray Berg-led band. The cast, including James Ramlet as Edwards, Angela Timberman as mother Zerelda and Dane Stauffer as Frank James, sometimes break the fourth wall.
Memorable musical numbers include as "I Am the Gun," the Northfield Choir's hymnlike "Mankind" and "Two Unlucky Stiffs," about a pair of dancing cadavers played with deadpan wit by Jen Burleigh-Bentz and Sasha Andreev.
The music, arranged by Robert Elhai, goes from rock to honky-tonk to classic show tunes. "Jesse" is perhaps the most accomplished show yet by the team of Poling, Hatcher and Elhai, best known for "Glensheen."
While it flows with the energy of a carnival, "Jesse" is not a western pastiche. In fact, the characters do not use real guns but their fingers prove potent as they're dusted off and aimed for the show's high body count — 35 in all.
Here are the five surprising takeaways from the musical revue:
Why Minnesota?: Jesse wanted to rob the First National Bank of Northfield because of his belief in the Lost Cause, that the South was noble and unfairly treated by the North over slavery. "The thought was that the bank's money came from a Union military man who stole from the South," Thompson said. Instead, the attempted robbery became his gang's Waterloo. The botched robbery netted $26.70. Jesse would die of a shot to the back some years later and his killer, Robert Ford, would be killed by another shooter in a scene that recalls Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby. And the conveyor belt of murder pulses on.
"Two Unlucky Stiffs": Taking a cue from famous daguerreotypes of deceased James-Younger Gang members Bill Chadwell and Clell Miller, Poling crafted a song about the dead robbers. "I just wanted to make some hay out of the singing and dancing corpses," the lyricist said. But then he thought that it didn't fit and considered dropping it from the show. Now the number gets the biggest applause.
Jesse had a Black stepbrother?: It's the American story, where freedom and slavery coil together like candy stripes. Perry Samuel (Jordan Leggett) is in photographs of the family, usually dead center, holding the camera's gaze. He is the son of an enslaved woman, Charlotte Garrett, and Reuben Samuel, Jesse's stepfather. In the show, Samuel gets his own song, "That's Me," almost as if he's pointing at the pictures to explain who he is. "From everything we researched, he was a beloved member of the family," Thompson said.
From letters to lyrics: "First of all, Jesse was coached and manipulated by journalist John Newman Edwards, who publishes Jesse's letters almost like manifestos," Poling said. "And in one of them, he says, 'Oh, I didn't mean to shoot that little girl with the curly hair. If someone would send me money, I would send money for her care in care of the newspaper. I'm a bold robber, not a common thief.' That's Jesse James verbatim. He had a good sense of himself."
O, Mama!: Timberman delivers a potent performance as Zerelda, Jesse's tough-as-nails mother who married thrice and had eight children. All the men in her life gave her grief. "When you've been living off crumbs in these dirty ratholes nothing good comes from a house full of [expletive]," she sings. And after her son was killed, she charged 25-cent tours of the Missouri farm where Jesse had grown up.
'The Defeat of Jesse James'
Who: Composed with lyrics by Chan Poling. Book by Jeffrey Hatcher. Directed by Richard D. Thompson with arrangements by Robert Elhai and musical direction by Ray Berg.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thu.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends May 28.
Where: History Theatre, 30 E. 10th St., St. Paul.
Tickets: $15-$63. 651-292-4323 or historytheatre.com.