The Defeat of Jesse James The World Premiere at History Theatre in Downtown St. Paul

Photo by Rick Spaulding

The biggest disappointment of the summer was the news that the new mystery play Holmes/Poirot co written by Jeffrey Hatcher was cancelled when Park Square Theatre had to end their 2022/2023 season early. Hopefully we’ll still get a chance to see that play in an upcoming season. Luckily, fans of Hatcher will still have plenty of opportunity to see productions of his work in the coming months. History Theatre is bringing us two musicals from the team of Jeffrey Hatcher and Chan Poling. Later this summer they’re bringing back one of History Theatre’s most popular shows, the musical Glensheen. But first, we get the world premiere of a new musical, The Defeat of Jesse James. This is not your standard musical, it’s more of a concert that tells the story of Jesse James through it’s songs and through dialogue interaction between the characters. Some of it acted out, but none of it meant to be taken as an actual scene being played out at specific locations. It’s filled as History Theatre shows always are, facts about its subject, some of which is common knowledge to the average theatregoer, but a lot of interesting pieces of information that I wasn’t aware of. It’s also full of humor and some catchy songs, all of which makes for a fun and informative night at the theatre.

Jesse James, like many famous figures from history, has been obscured by the legends and myths that have sprung up around him. Hatcher and Poling’s new musical acknowledges this and does it’s best to cut through the baloney and give us the facts, though definitely with tongue planted firmly in cheek. The duo use humor in the script and in the songs to relay the facts but keep them from getting to gruesome. An example, what happens to Mother Zerelda’s arm, just the fact of it is awful but the representation gets a big laugh. It’s a joke that gets called back to a few times and never really loses its ability to pull a laugh from the audience. Another excellent use of humor is the song “Two Unlucky Stiffs”, which is sung by two members of the James gang that weren’t, as the title indicates, very lucky. The reality of the James gang is dark stuff and choosing to present their story with humor allows them to sidestep several problematic elements. There are no realistic looking firearms used in the production, the rule is established early on with the characters using their hands in the shape of guns. You couldn’t tell Jesse James’ story without the use of guns and if you tell it seriously they’d have to look real, but if you go the humorous route it can just be their hands in the shape of guns. Let’s face it, given today’s world, anytime we can avoid seeing firearms in the theater, is a win. It’s a clever choice, it adds humor while at the same time being mindful that it’s time to take a step back from realistic depictions of gun violence whenever possible. Theatermakers have to be conscious of their audiences by adapting to the times and reflecting the world in which we live today, even when telling stories from the past. Another element that deliberately speaks to our world today is a song performed by the character Perry Samuel, Jesse’s half Step Brother who was of mixed race. A reminder that despite over 100 years of film and television westerns that seemed to suggest the wild west was white, BIPOC were part of this country’s history as well.

Adam Qualls headlines The Defeat of Jesse James as the titular character playing it with just the right mix of bravado and humor. He has the look and swagger of a Country Music star which fits well with the style of most of the songs. My favorite performer in the entire show was Angela Timberman who plays Jesse’s mother Zerelda. Primarily for comedic relief, that arm moment I mentioned earlier is one of many moments that Timberman plays to perfection, not only in her line delivery but in the gestures she utilizes. That is the moment that will stay with me long after the details of this show have been lost under the mountain of shows that have fallen. She also gets to sing one of the shows jaw dropping songs “House Full of…” Timberman alone is worth the price of the ticket, but we get so much more including not one, not two, but three veterans of All is Calm which is a personal favorite from Theater LattĂ© Da. Sasha Andreev in particular really gets a chance to shine along with Jen Burleigh-Bentz as reanimated corpses singing the song “Two Unlucky Stiffs. The entire ensemble though is quite good and seem to be on the same page in realizing the tone being set by Director and the new Artistic Director of the History Theatre Richard D. Thompson.

Thompson creates this concert feel that effortlessly segways into bits of story and than back again, reminding one of the types of popular comedic music shows one might catch at Opryland or Silver Dollar City. Set Designer Joel Sass has created a space that plays into that theme and it’s really a stunner. I loved the fabric wall panels and the ‘Applause’ sign that lights up at all the right moments. Like all great storytelling concerts, the Lighting Design is critical and Karin Olson’s work here beautifully alters the look and feel of the stage as we move from upbeat to more quiet moments. The costumes by Sonya Berlovitz are a nice blend of traditional cowboy garb crossed with the Country and Western performers wardrobe. It’s a production that really has all of its elements working together toward a unified tone and purpose. It would seem that History Theatre is in good hands with Richard D. Thompson

The Defeat of Jesse James runs through May 28th at History Theatre in St. Paul. For more information and to purchase tickets go to

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