Wednesday, March 18, 2015

PAINT YOUR WAGON: Complex Orchestrations and Big Production Values Clash With An Intimate Story

If ever a show needed to be John Doyle-ized, it’s Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s 1951 musical Paint Your Wagon, now having a brief run as part of the Encores! season at City Center. 

Doyle, of course, is a director known for his stripped-down versions of Sweeney Todd, Company, and Allegro, among others. He has nothing to do with the Paint Your Wagon revival, of course (Marc Bruni is doing the honors at Encores!), but his ability to tame lavish productions to get at their essence—including having the acting company double as musicians—would do this musical a world of good.  

Lerner and Loewe, coming off their lushly-scored hit musical Brigadoon, switched gears entirely with this earthy tale about the dreamers and drifters who pinned their hopes on the California Gold Rush of the mid-1800s. The theme is set with the opening song, “I’m On My Way”:

                             Where am I goin’
                             I don’t know
                             Where am I headin’
                             I ain’t certain
                             All that I know is I am on my way

The song is performed by a male chorus that includes stock American characters and recent immigrants from various European countries.  It perfectly captures the sense of men adrift.   

One of these is Ben Rumson, a grizzled ‘49er who stumbles across a vein of gold, stakes a claim, and establishes the town of Rumson Creek somewhere in Northern California, where he is quickly joined by the other gold-seeking men. The only female in town is Rumson’s 16-year-old daughter Jennifer. The plot, such as it is, has two central storylines.  One follows Rumson and the men. The other follows Jennifer, who falls in love with Julio, a handsome young miner pressured to live alone outside of town, treated as an outcast because he is Mexican. Added to the mix is a separate off-the-wall thread that has to do with a newcomer, Elizabeth, one of two wives of a Mormon man who auctions her off to the highest bidder.  

Paint Your Wagon is not exactly a well-plotted tale (Lerner wrote the book as well as the lyrics to Loewe’s music), but it does have some interesting elements, including a cross-ethnic love story, broaching the theme of prejudice that Rodgers and Hammerstein made central to their glorious South Pacific (1949), and a character (Elizabeth), who bears a resemblance to the same pair’s Ado Annie from Oklahoma (1943).

What rescues Paint Your Wagon from its clunky and at least partly derivative storyline are a plethora of catchy and memorable songs that have withstood the test of time (“I Talk To The Trees,” “They Call The Wind Maria,” “Wand’rin' Star”) and that fit the characters to a T.  What they don’t fit, however, is the outsize production or Ted Royal’s original (i. e. from 1951) orchestrations, though I hasten to praise the on-stage orchestra which does a splendid job of performing the score under Rob Berman’s always-masterful direction. 

The songs—in keeping with the rough-hewn characters—are carefully crafted so as to follow a simple and easy-going structure. They cry out to be accompanied by banjos and guitars (these instruments occasionally appear in this production, but, alas, only for moments at a time) rather than a large theater orchestra performing lush and complex orchestrations. On top of that, choreographer Denis Jones has taken a cue from Agnes de Mille’s original work, and so there are a several balletic dance numbers that--as nicely performed as they are--ill suit the production, which, after all, features a stage full of scruffy men for most of the time.   

There are, to be fair, a couple of lovely ballads, including “I Still See Elisa,” which Rumson sings about his late wife, and the duet for Julio and Jennifer, “Carino Mio.”  For these, a more lushly romantic arrangement makes sense. There is also a fun and raucous opening to Act II, featuring a troop of gals who have been brought to town to entertain the men in the saloon, performing the bouncy “Hand Me Down That Can O’ Beans,” followed by “Can-Can.” Here it makes sense to open up the production. But for much of the show, things ought to be focused on the individual characters, whose solitary, rootless lives gnaw at them (“Now I’m lost, so gol-durned lost, not even God can find me” is a powerful lyric that needs to be sung against a very quiet accompaniment).

Regardless of the cross-purposes facing the production, there are standouts among the cast at Encores! These include Keith Carradine as Rumson, Justin Guarini at Julio, and Jenni Barber in the comic role of Elizabeth, who is unfazed at the prospect of being auctioned off and who later happily runs away with one of the men. 

Certainly there are many who will be taken by the production values and the grand orchestrations. But if you were to strip a lot of that away, you would find an intimate musical about a group of society's rejects, the kind who will always be seeking to fill the holes in their lives by searching for the ever-elusive pot of gold.

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