Anne Lawrence Guyon
PO Box 19
Saxtons River, VT  05154

Levi and Jacob - A Tale of Two Talents

by Anne Lawrence Guyon

Last weekend something of a revolution came to Saxtons River, Vermont, not in the form of fervent tactics and stormy riots but rather, sturdy fabric and copper rivets. There were no angry protesters marching in the streets but instead eager immigrants singing and dancing on a stage, telling what is an endearingly vibrant tale of transcontinental courage and entrepreneurial spirit in the world premiere production of "Jeans -- An Historical Folk Musical", at the Main Street Arts Theater.

Nowadays, jeans are as much a part of daily life as a cup of joe and a newspaper, but about 130 years ago, after a certain shiny ore out California had begun making headlines, two people revolutionized industry itself by outfitting miners in rugged "waist overalls" that could stand the rigors of the job. Levi Strauss, a Bavarian dry goods merchant, and Jacob Davis, a Latvian tailor, had followed the westward pull of the gold rush and their story -- of pairing Davis' ingenious metallic invention and wise business sense with Strauss' strong blue material and commercial clout -- is legendary in the annals of both San Francisco history and fashion evolution.

Through cleverly crafted lyrics, spirited dialogue and colorful characters that deftly describe the journey that brought these two hard-working pioneers together, a young and enthusiastic cast -- peppered with some truly sparkling talent -- brought this inspiring tale to life in the first full productions ever staged of Caryn Huberman and Diane Claerbout's play. Echoing the dichotomy between the sparse experience of the average minority immigrant and exhilarating tales of the intrepid industrialists so many of them became, the show shifts from earnest lessons about the human struggle to survive, as told through a script that is delightfully down-to-earth, to valiant examples of true grit and gumption, conveyed with songs that are both weighty and whimsical. Set to pleasing melodies with which many of us are familiar, Enid Davis' lyrics are refreshingly matter-of-fact, slightly sardonic and, on occasion, marvelously melodramatic, with -- thank goodness -- nary a frilly phrase to be found.

Laced with sub-plots of budding romances, big dreams and nefarious intentions, the story opens with the transformative moment when a group of hopeful emigres emerge from the boat at New York City harbor, whereupon multi-syllabic names are duly shortened, eyes are wide and hopes bountiful. The widow Jacob Davis, convincingly played by Jordan Mitchell-Love, and his daughters, fanciful Fanny and practical Sarah, in the forms of terrific comic actors Megan Harris and Kaitlyn Hertford, stand discussing their new life, sharing joys, worries and warnings. Just as the audience begins to settle into its seats for a gripping journey with this daring Jewish family, circa 1847, and expecting a few solemn songs along the way particularly at the beginning of this hardscrabble tale, the three weary travelers suddenly launch into a rousing rendition of a song we all know but whose lyrics have clearly been changed to provoke the indifferent. Instead of "He's got the whole world -- in his hands", the eager trio before us starts belting out "We've got our whole lives -- to be free" followed by lines like "I'll be a daring big inventor -- just you see", "I want to have an education -- an M.D." and "I'm so delighted to be Jewish -- openly".

Apparently, this isn't your average historical play with a few songs thrown in for dramatic effect. The other numbers are equally brazen in their attempt to simultaneously edify and entertain as well. With joyfully incongruous songs that burst forth out of practical conversations about chicken soup and childbirth, it's Gilbert & Sullivan meets Immigrant History 101. As the story unfolds, chronicling hardships Jacob and his family face running a both a clothiers and a distillery in a rough Nevada mining town, we see him zeroing in on a way to keep seams from splitting on miners pants and soon realizing he's on to something. Knowing he can't afford the patent fee, but that he needs to do something to secure his invention, he writes to a trusted vendor from whom he buys fabric -- Levi Strauss, in San Francisco - and asks if he will fund the patent and share the title. Levi agrees and thus begins the birth of what is now probably the most ubiquitous item of clothing in the world.

With a script that includes such enjoyable nuggets as the original text of the letter Jacob penned to Levi, there is an authentic appeal about this play that is both beguiling and bold. Huberman and Claerbout have done more than created a fun and feisty musical, they've shed light on a -- dare I say it -riveting chapter in American history, one that illustrates immigrant mettle, mercantile moxy and the impulse human beings possess to create something bigger than themselves which, in this case, spawned one of the major manufacturers that established San Francisco's economy. Add to that the fact that Levi Strauss was one of this country's earliest and most generous philanthropists, supporting educational, community and Jewish organizations, and this snapshot of our history is an amalgam of all the qualities of life that Americans value so most. Peeking at their website, I note that Levi Strauss & Co. still upholds the same tenets by which Levi himself lived and for which he was celebrated upon his death in 1902: empathy, originality, integrity and courage.

This musical is also a celebration of those ideals and one that speaks to all ages, with music, joy and adventure. Traditional tunes, from "On Top of Old Smokey" to "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" updated (or, in this case, backdated) with bright, lively lyrics, add flavor and a touch of hilarity, as do a few charming supporting characters. Early on we meet Kentucky farmers Alice and Gideon, who declare to the world -- and the melody of "Give My Regards To Broadway"- "We're gonna leave Kentucky, remember us to horse and plow, tell all the gang at Morty's feedin' store that we are miners now". With the amazingly bubbly Emma Bliss (think effervescent Debbie Reynolds in "Singin' In the Rain") as Alice, this is one of the stellar numbers that sets the pace for a show that smoothly spans several eras, employing relatively recent melodies to carry meaningful messages of yore.

Likewise, Allie Bliss, cast as Jacob's charismatic love interest Bella Cohen, injects the show with her own brand of confidence and aplomb, beautifully belting out "The Widow Bella Cohen" to the tune of "McNamara's Band", with choice lines like "I've never been a mother, but I know just what to do. Don't hesitate to call on me, or on my dumplings too." Such spirit is further buoyed along by yet more songs that are equally flagrant in their lyrical license, such as "Hava Negilah", which has Jacob predicting "Have I a feeling, have I a feeling, have I a feeling, this could be it!" in reference to the promise of prosperity his rivets hold for him and his family. A dastardly Castine Echanis plays Sam Green, Jacob's fictitious nemesis who not only vies for the patent but lures Fanny's loyalties as well, imploring the family -- to strains of "Oh Susanna" -- "Oh, Jake Davis, why partners we will be, for I came from my own business just to help you out, you'll see."

In the midst of all this drama is the quiet, industrious figure of Levi Strauss himself, studiously played by Patrick Caron, as he nurtures his fertile Barbary Coast enterprise into a thriving empire. By the end of the show, we're brought full circle and back to the core point that this man - in tandem with the crucial genius of his all-too unknown patent partner, Jacob Davis -- transformed manufacturing, fashion and the story of the Jewish immigrant through pure vision and veracity. Together they redefined the term 'pioneer' with a work ethic that, even in today's terms, was truly singular. The finale, with the full cast singing "Everyone's In Jeans" to the tune of "Sidewalks of New York" and costumed in their own jeans and t-shirts, reminds us of just how far-reaching the achievements of these iconic men have been. It's a jubilant, moving end to a remarkable, uplifting saga.

Having had its world premiere right here in New England, the circle is, in fact, more complete, if not poetic, since Levi's preferred source for the denim he used to make his original riveted "waist overalls" was the Amoskeag Mill right over in Manchester, New Hampshire. Though this first full production of "Jeans -- An Historical Musical" played in a small venue, this is one big, dynamic story that deserves ample audiences, for its triumphant credo will teach both children and adults that through courage, commitment and collaboration, you can make a better life.

Anne Lawrence Guyon lives in Saxtons River, Vermont
(and - as much as possible - her jeans).