The second problem is that the structure of the show leaves little to nothing for the second act. The show opens in 1945, Noppon is at his new house with his wife Pree. He hangs a painting in the house, a scene of a waterfall, and he lets us know, lost in the memory of the moment, that "she" danced with him there. We see a flash of it in memory"she" is a blonde who is clearly not Pree. Noppon then takes us back to 1933 when he met the mystery woman. Any intelligent audience member knows two things: first, the show is going to end as it started, with Noppon hanging the painting in his new house; and second, the first act is going to end at the waterfall, with Noppon and the woman dancing. There is little mystery in the first act, but the story of getting Noppon and the woman together at the waterfall is, at least, interesting and generally well constructed. The second act covers the fallout from the couple's encounter at the waterfall. And since we know it's going to end with Noppon married to someone else and viewing the waterfall as a happy memory, there's very little to keep us engaged. Maltby's book is particularly unhelpful here, as it careens between world events and personal moments with no apparent direction, and includes several plot developments so contrived they engender eye rolls if not actual groans.
But first, the first act, which is the part of Waterfall that shows the most promise. It takes place in Japan, where Noppon, a college student from Siam, is enamored with all things American. So it's no surprise that he is smitten by Katherine, the American wife of a visiting Siamese diplomat. That Noppon conveniently speaks English (and is closer in age to Katherine than her own husband) makes him an ideal companion to keep Katherine company while the diplomat is engaged in high-level negotiations. The first act of Waterfall is a straight-up forbidden love story: there are class differences, age differences, racial differences, cultural differences, and the obvious fact that Katherine is married. All of this must be overcome for Noppon and Katherine to dance at the waterfall. And it is overcome, largely on the strength of the performance of Bie Sukrit, a pop music star in Thailand, who gives us an earnest and charming Noppon it is impossible not to like. Emily Padgett is less successful as Katherine (although she, like Sukrit, can definitely handle the score), but I think the problem is more with how Katherine is written than played.
Katherine knows that, as the diplomat's wife, she is above Noppon in society. She is kind toward him, but it comes off as a sort of noblesse obligeshe's being sweet and welcoming to everyone because that's part of her job. I spent most of the first act wanting to see something genuine from Katherinewithout emotional truth, I could see no chemistry between her and Noppon. More than that, there are contradictions written into her character that need to be resolved: she's supposed to be a big supporter of traditional Asian culture, but she commits a cultural faux pas in Japan; and although her husband obviously loves her for her American-ness, she suddenly decides she wants to be more Thai for him.
The songs also fail to impress. Less than 24 hours out and I can't recall a single melody, nor can I recall being moved by one. This may be a fatal problem for the work. While there's nothing particularly new in the plot, the moments chosen to be musicalized also have a familiar feel. There's the song in which Noppon is told that racism in America means the country isn't nearly as great as he thinks it is ("America" did it better, whispered the man behind me) and I had "Finishing the Hat" flashbacks during "Watercolor," where Katherine is singing about creating the painting stroke by stroke. The problem isn't so much that it's all been done before, but that it's all been done before better. You can't have a Western woman/Siamese man musical without inviting comparisons to The King and I, and you have to be extraordinary to come off well in that comparison.
On the plus side, the show is visually gorgeous. Surely, someone wants to take it to Broadway; there is no way a show without aspirations would have such an expensive visual look. Sasavat Busayabandh beautifully brings the waterfall scene to life, and this is matched by Caite Hevner Kemp's recreation of it in projections for Katherine's creation of the painting. Indeed, many of the backgrounds in the show look like paintings on torn parchment, a perfect complement for the location of the action. Wade Laboissonniere's lush costumes are heavy on the silk and sparkle. The look of Waterfall is truly impressive. It just isn't enough.
Waterfall runs at the Pasadena Playhouse through June 28, 2015. For tickets and information, see pasadenaplayhouse.org.
The Pasadena Playhouse -- Sheldon Epps, Artistic Director -- in association with The 5th Avenue Theatre presents Waterfall. Book and Lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr.; Music by David Shire. Scenic Designer Sasavat Busayabandh; Costume Designer Wade Laboissonniere; Lighting Designer Ken Billington; Sound Designer Dan Moses Schreier; Projection Designer Caite Hevner Kemp; Wig, Hair and Make-Up Designer J. Jared Janas; Casting Stewart/Whitley; Production Stage Manager Andrew Neal; Orchestrations Jonathan Tunick; Dance Music Arrangements Greg Jarrett; General Manager Joe Witt; Production Manager Hethyr "Red" Verhoef; Company Manager Kristen Hammack; Technical Director Brad Enlow. Music Supervision and Additional Arrangements by John McDaniel; Co-Directed and Choreographed by Dan Knechtges. Directed by Tak Viravan.