by Betty Hodges
[Note: Diamond Studs was only two weeks into its 9-month run off-Broadway when this article was written. The cast members speculate on the play's impact on their futures. Many of the dreams came true.]
NEW YORK -- It’s settled -- “Diamond Studs,” the Chapel Hill “saloon musical” that made it to the big time is a smash hit. But the Tar Heel company that created it still isn’t sure what’s next.
Director John Haber, cornered at the Westside Theater the other night at intermission after he sat through the first act smiling happily from the audience, admitted, “It looks like we’ll be here awhile.”
And everybody from writer-lyricist Jim
Wann, who also stars as an overalled Jesse James, to [Fiddlin'] Bill Hicks,
a Duke Press editor, agreed, “We’re off to a run and it’s open-ended; it
could well be as long as we would like it to.”
But there were more permanent implications that please people like big, red-headed banjoist Tommy Thompson, a North Carolina State University philosophy professor who’s played with one of the two musical groups in the show for years and is a sun-bonneted “Mama Fantastic” in the show.
“Now we’ll be able,” he said, “to get full-time professional work for the Red Clay Ramblers” (which he is in, along with Hicks and Jim Watson on the mandolin and Mike Craver at the piano.)
And Wann, of the Southern States Fidelity Choir, agrees. “We were pretty much underground until the show” started in Chapel Hill. “Until the show a few hundred fans kept us alive coming to see us at the Wildflower Kitchen and the Cats Cradle in Chapel Hill. Now we’ve got a chance to made a decent living.”
Playing with Wann, who is guitarist with the Southern States, are Bland Simpson at the piano; Jim Foley, guitar; Mike Sheehan, percussion; and Jim Davidson, bass.
“For most of these people the idea that they’d ever take a shot to New York was the last thing in their minds. We did it for fun in Chapel Hill,” Haber said.
But it was the more experienced Haber (an Asheville native who was organizing theater groups as early as grammar school) who made the New York contacts that landed the show in the arts-funded Chelsea Theater Center’s Westside Theater.
Haber was enthusiastic about the possibilities of Wann’s idea to use the country-folk mixture kind of sound made by the Ramblers and the Southern States groups in a show built loosely around the life of Jesse James. Haber had the Chelsea people interested before the show opened in Chapel Hill last October. After a five-day run at the Ranch Restaurant the group went to New York and previewed it on New Year’s Eve, opening officially Jan. 14  to rave reviews.
Bill Hicks and Jim Watson were the only ones who would venture to analyze the reasons for the show’s big success. “The music happened at the right time,” they agreed. “The kind of music we both (the Ramblers and the Southern States) play is in the range of things people like right now.”
The big thing the New Your audiences like about the whole show, Hicks added, “is its straightness and honesty. The people up on that stage are having a good time--those smiles are real--and the audiences know it.”
Frances Tamburro, one of the female cast members, echoed his contention. “I’m having a good time and I like doing the show. I like being with my friends; the whole cast is very close.” A graduate student at UNC working on Southern cotton mill songs, Miss Tamburro added, “It (the show) is a big switch from the academic.”
Tiny little Madelyn Smoak, who claims she doesn’t even know how tall she is, “but something under five feet,” was obviously taking the acclaim she gets for her belt-it-out singing style in stride.
“I’m going to stay with the show,” she said. “We’re all friends and I’d miss these people a lot if I wasn’t with them”
Wann may have summed it up when he concluded,
“We’re all still very committed Southerners. I have a hunch we’ll
all settle down in North Carolina. It’s too soon to tell.”