Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

A Great Natural Production of
Paint Your Wagon by the
42nd Street Moon Company

Also see Richard's review of Man Of La Mancha

San Francisco's 42nd Street Moon opens its new season of "lost musicals" with a rare concert production of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's Paint Your Wagon, a robust musical celebrating the daring, colorful and rowdy world of the California Gold Rush of 1853.

When people think of Lerner and Loewe, they often think of My Fair Lady, Camelot and Brigadoon, but they forget that this same couple wrote the words and music to the brash Paint Your Wagon. The musical opened at the Shubert Theatre in the winter of 1951 with James Barton, Olga San Juan and James Mitchell. It received mixed reviews; however, the critics did feel affection for the score. I saw the show in January 1952 and, frankly, I could not remember the story but I loved the score for its rawness and breezy melodies. It ran only for 289 performances.

Paramount and Clint Eastwood's production company Malpaso purchased the film rights to the musical in 1968. They insisted that the Broadway plot be tossed out along with several of Loewe's tunes. Andre Previn was brought in to compose some new melodies for Lerner's lyrics. Non-singers Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin and Jean Seberg were to play the leads on a huge expensive set of the gold rush town up in Baker, Oregon. Paramount and Malpaso sunk 20 million dollars into the production, which was big money in those days. The last scene was a complete collapse of the gold mining town set (which I happened to witness). The movie was a financial failure and the studios never were able to recoup the loss.

There have been very few revivals of the hearty musical. Alan Jay Lerner reworked the musical in the late '70s, and the reviews of some major regional productions of this rewrite have been positive. There has even been talk of a Broadway revival based on these reviews. Artistic Director Greg MacKellan is presenting essentially the revised edition; however, he has restored Jennifer's song "All For Him," which was deleted in the '70s, and the original Broadway ending.

Paint Your Wagon centers on the grizzled old prospector Ben Rumson (Kelly Houston) and his sixteen year old daughter Jennifer (Marcie Henderson). The young gal finds a gold nugget near their camp, and gold miners descend upon the area and create a boomtown. There is a community of womanless men who complain about the difficulty of keeping their hands off the young girl, so the father sends her off to a school in the East to get some "learnin'." There is also a perverse element about the story when a passing Mormon bigamist sells off his second wife.

(clockwise from top left) Michael Cronin, Kelly Houston, Alex Hsu, Colin Hussey, Brian Gillespie, and Robyn Taylor sing "Wanderin' Star."
Director Greg MacKellan has assembled a talented multiracial cast that looks and acts like the gold miners of the 1850s. Kelly Houston makes an excellent Ben Rumson, and he plays the character as a lovable rogue. He has a good emotional melodic voice in "Wand'rin' Star" and "I Still See Elisa." Marcia Henderson is a little pixie as the 16 year old Jennifer who becomes quite a lady in the second act when she returns from the Eastern school. She has a lovely voice, especially when she sings "How Can I Wait," "Carino Mio" and "All For Him."

Brian Gillespie gives a polished performance as the proud Mexican, Julio. His accent is not what we usually hear when "gringos" try for the rhythm of the speech. Gillespie's speech has a certain Castilian flair about it. He has a striking presence about him and a beautiful full range voice when singing the duets "I Talk to the Trees" and "Carino Mio" with Ms. Henderson. Joshua Powell (who was awarded a best actor by the SFBATCC in another musical this year) plays one of the miners with a wife back home who hopes to strike it rich. He is powerful in his rendition of "They Call the Wind Maria."

Choreography by Jayne Zaban is very good for the small stage of the Eureka Theatre, especially the music hall sequence when the California showgirls give their version of the Can Can. The male dancers doing "Hand Me Down That Can o' Beans" are great fun as they square dance and stomp about the stage. There is also a beautiful ballet sequence by Alex Hsu and Taylor Jordan to "Another Autumn." The male chorus in many of the numbers is dynamic.

David Dobrusky, who is always an asset as the pianist for these productions, is great. This time he is joined by Austin Ku on violin in several numbers. He has a lovely touch on that string instrument. Austin also plays Salem the owner of the general store. Greg MacKellan's direction is right on the mark and the whole cast is dressed in jeans and cotton shirts by costumer Sunnia Eastwood.

Paint Your Wagon plays thru April 13 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-978-2787 or visit online. There next production is Kathryn Crosby in Roberta which opens on April 23rd.

Photo: David Allen.

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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