Big Dreams, Big Voices Boost ‘Paint Your Wagon’ Makeover at The Muny

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Eureka! A robust makeover to an unremarkable ‘50s era musical “Paint Your Wagon” has hit pay dirt on the Muny stage.

Those behind the new edition have dreamed as big as the characters in this fresh look at the American identity, those yearning for a better life who came over land and by sea, as many as 300,000 during the rough-and-tumble California Gold Rush.

It’s one of our nation’s most significant tipping points (1848-1855). The musical, set in a mining camp in 1853, has everything we associate with those rugged settlers – the wild untamed west, the wide-open spaces and the pioneer spirit, only this version sharpens the American melting pot feel.

Despite its Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe pedigree, the 1951 homage to the Old West had fallen out of favor – not that it ever was a hot property, for it had only run on Broadway for 289 performances. And then, there was the much-maligned 1969 movie starring those songbirds Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood (27 percent on Rotten Tomatoes!).

The latest incarnation, developed by the Frederick Loewe Foundation and playwright Jon Marans, has new orchestrations, vocal arrangements, dance and characters – and presents the reimagined story through a different lens. You won’t be able to forget this one, an unvarnished snapshot that touches on bigotry and prejudices as fortune seekers headed West.

Photo by Phillip Hamer

Marans has focused on historical accuracy and made deep incisions so that it’s not merely unsatisfying filler between the signature songs “They Call the Wind Maria,” “I Talk to the Trees” and “Wand’rin’ Star,” but a journey about lives and loves with real emotional heft.

Those compelling changes are as much a surprise as Josh Rhodes’ inspired direction and innovative choreography, assisted by Lee Wilkins, because they have rescued an otherwise lightweight show and connected with a modern audience.

Marans wrote the 1996 Pulitzer Prize-nominated play “Old Wicked Songs,” a character study about a Holocaust survivor and his burnt-out pupil. A New Jewish Theatre production won Best Drama at the St. Louis Theater Circle Awards in 2017.

The story still has brawny prospector Ben Rumson (Matt Bogart) as the strong center, the enterprising leader among the rag-tag settlers of “No Name City,” but in the first act, the only female is not his daughter, as the earlier incarnations, but his lovable new wife, Cayla (Mamie Parris).

He ‘wins’ her in a bidding contest, like a commodity, for she has been abused by her despicable lout of a husband (Michael James Reed, yelling at 11). Well, that was awkward. Parris, so winning as Irene in the 2014 “Hello, Dolly!,” conveys genuine warmth and caring, and her lilting voice is lovely.

Mamie Parris and Matt Bogart. Photo by Phillip Hamer

Bogart and Parris have combustible chemistry, and their harmonies mesh beautifully. While Bogart didn’t seem to be as smooth as other performers on opening night, he delivered an electric “They Call the Wind Maria,” and his other numbers showcased his commanding baritone.

After striking it rich, sturdy Ben becomes the boomtown’s chief developer. Now named Rumson City, the outpost becomes home to Rumson Palace in the second act, a place for socializing and gambling that he envisioned for everybody.

Michael Schweikardt’s scenic design is a distinct mix of awe-inspiring panoramic exteriors and fresh-hewed lumber interiors. Lighting designer John Lasiter makes the night sky glow while video design by Caite Hevner expanded picture postcard vistas.

However, Ben’s one-world theory isn’t exactly practiced when his right-hand man Armando (Omar Lopez-Cepero), whose wealthy and cultured family lived in the Mexican territory of northern California,  takes a shine to Rumson’s feisty daughter, Jennifer (Maya Keleher), who has traveled from the East Coast to join her father.

Much to the horror of his college-educated daughter and wife, Rumson will not accept the Armando-Jennifer union, therefore not practicing what he preaches. His luster is dimmed, only to see him work through those feelings.

Racism is rampant among the rowdy miners, who are frustrated and fearful of the ‘foreigners.’ Two brothers from China, Ming Li (St. Louis native Austin Ku) and Guang Li (Raymond J. Lee), once of royal lineage now just wanting to survive; a down-on-his-luck Irish immigrant William (Bobby Conte Thornton), who regrets leaving his family but is desperate to provide for them after the Great Famine (aka Irish Potato Famine); two African-Americans, free man H. Ford (Rodney Hicks) and slave Wesley (Allan K. Washington); and Europeans of various nationalities all jostle for their piece of the pie.

Ku, Lee, Thornton, Hicks and Washington are outstanding talents who immersed themselves in these meatier roles. And the men revealed bold and controlled voices in such numbers as “How Can I Wait?” and “Four Hundred People Came to No Name City.”

Allan K. Washington and Rodney Hicks. Photo by Phillip Hamer

Some of the characters are contemptible, especially Preston Truman Boyd as an intolerable loudmouth Jake, a Southerner who owns a tavern and looks at all of life as transactional.

Sinai Tabak is conducting the Muny orchestra for the first time, and the richly textured sound adds another layer of complexity to a testosterone-heavy show. There is a harp among all the strings, and the sounds of country and bluegrass impart an Americana homespun feel.

One is reminded how elegant and lyrical Lerner and Loewe were, as this show was written in between the more successful “Brigadoon” (1947) and “My Fair Lady” (1956). 

Photo by Phillip Hamer

The dancing girls show up in the second act, in quite the entrance – arriving by stagecoach, “There’s a Coach Comin’ In.” Two magnificent Clydesdale horses pull them – and the audience went crazy.

Some of the lonely men lose their way and go a little batty, and this 180-degree turn, while true to life, is disconcerting. Gold fever makes some of the men envious, greedy and bitter. Things get ugly, reminding us that while the high road is preferred, human nature suggests otherwise. This is harsh and hard-hitting, recovering in a hail of hope. If you are expecting fluff, this is not that kind of show, dancing girls aside.

Nevertheless, the performers are indeed the gold nuggets enticing us to make the emotional investment. The vocal prowess on display is as breathtaking as the scenery, so it’s unfortunate there was a myriad of uncharacteristic sound issues Saturday – static, mics cutting out or not on for singers, and rough patches. Sound design is by John Shivers and David Patridge.

“Paint Your Wagon” was one of those lackluster second-rate musicals whose contemporary overhaul is quite an accomplishment, and the Muny has polished it with tender loving care. You might as well forget any previous version.

A new world premiere production in Los Angeles, with a revised libretto by David Rambo, ran from Nov. 23, 2004 to Jan. 9, 2005. Then a fall 2007 production by the Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake City, Utah had a cast of nearly 30. An Encores! Staged concert production in New York City in March 2015 starred Keith Carradine as Rumson and Justin Guarini as Julio.

There is no Julio here, replaced by Armando. It’s a stronger role, and Lopez-Cepero unleashes a glorious voice in his standout performance. His “Carino Mio” duet with Keleher is lush and romantic.

Photo by Phillip Hamer

Helping to shape the in-the-works musical is a natural fit for the Muny, for it presented spirited reboots of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” in 2017 and “The Wiz” last year. During the Mike Isaacson era, the emphasis on imagination and the theme of home has been recurring elements. So, it’s no surprise that the Mother Lode Muny is again a birthplace, producing in association with On the Wagon Productions and Garmar Ventures.

By virtue of its American patchwork quilt make-up, “Paint Your Wagon” may remind people of “Oklahoma!” – especially that number pleading harmony, “The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends,” but I recalled “Fiddler on the Roof” instead, a proud community clinging to its customs but having to move forward at great sacrifice for survival.

In the West, hardships knocked down many a soul, but hope springs eternal in “Paint Your Wagon,” and smartly addressing changing tides so dramatically will be able to resonate. You can hear America singing with its varied voices.

The Muny presents “Paint Your Wagon” evenings at 8:15 p.m. July 27 – Aug. 2. For more information, visit
www.muny.org.

Bobby Conte Thornton as William. Photo by Phillip Hamer

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