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Paint Your Wagon

Paint Your Wagon
Janelle Dote, Erika Amato, Sharon Lawrence, Harry S. Murphy (in back), Tom Wilson, Jessica Rush and Tracey Powell
There is a reason we have things like Encores! in New York or Reprise! in L.A. - companies that produce semi-staged versions of rarely produced musicals. And that reason is best exemplified by the Geffen Playhouse's "revisical" of Paint Your Wagon, currently playing at the Brentwood Theatre. Companies like Encores! and Reprise! have an unspoken arrangement with the audience - everyone understands that the show's book might be corny, politically incorrect, problematic or outright bad, but they do the show anyway so that modern audiences have a chance to hear the songs sung live on a stage, the way they were meant to be heard. But the Geffen's Paint Your Wagon gets no free pass on an outdated book. It takes the classic Lerner and Loewe score, throws in a couple of other Lerner and Loewe songs, stirs them up with a new book by David Rambo, and gives us a new entity that must be judged on its own merits.

And while this sort of formula met with success when David Henry Hwang did it with Flower Drum Sung, the problem here is that Rambo's revised Paint Your Wagon book is nowhere near the same league.

The story follows Ben Rumson, a gold prospector who has come to California in 1852, seeking his fortune. He has brought with him his daughter Jennifer, a teenaged tomboy who, as it happens, has an unusual knack for tripping over gold. When Jennifer discovers gold, Rumson is joined by a surprisingly racially diverse group of men who work the claim and build up a town. Yes, in 1852, Rumson's band includes an African-American, a Native American and a Chinese-American. The townspeople also include a preacher and a Jewish merchant. And everyone gets along swimmingly. The only people who are not welcome in Rumson's multicultural mecca are those "dirty Mexicans."

There doesn't seem to be any reason for the town's bias against this one particular nationality (and it doesn't extend to a Latina dancing girl), excepting that Rambo's book requires it. Jennifer secretly falls in love with Julio, a Mexican, and this has to create conflict. Conflict is also created by "Bull," the Jud Fry of the piece (unkempt, loves Jennifer, would do violence for her, you know the drill). The show then goes off into standard "money versus family" and "prejudice versus acceptance" debates, and does so in a way that is so heavy-handed, it makes After School Specials seem subtle. Moreover, Rambo has two couples fall in love at first sight, but gives them no common ground or even antagonism as fuel to ignite a relationship.

The whole thing distracts from the reason you go to see Paint Your Wagon in the first place: the score. From the eminently hummable "I'm On My Way," through the delicate "I Talk to the Trees," right up to the well-known "They Call The Wind Maria," Paint Your Wagon is full of delightful Lerner and Loewe songs. However, this production has so many missteps, it rarely finds itself "in the zone" of nailing these numbers. The first of many flaws is the performance of Jessica Rush as Jennifer. She never actually inhabits her character, but instead sings all of her songs in an exaggerated style as though performing them in a variety show or beauty pageant. The blame may lay with director Gilbert Cates, as Rush isn't the only one to suffer a case of pageant-itis. Tom Wilson, whose Rumson showed promise in the opener, "Wand'rin Star," later sings "In Between" to the audience, rather than the character to whom he should be singing it. Another problem is the small cast. Although the mining town is populated by some nine men, they are ultimately joined by only four dancing girls - two of whom do not always dance. Big production numbers seem strained in the absence of sufficient females. It is only the male-only songs that even have a chance of success. When the men sing "There's a Coach Comin' In," accompanied by Kay Cole's foot-stomping choreography, or when they all join voices on "I'm On My Way," they temporarily bring the show up to the energy level it should have all the way through.

A final, and fatal, problem with the revised book is that it actually works against the songs. While Rambo has devised scenes in which the dialogue safely leads into the general meaning of a song, the full lyrics sometimes do not fit. When some miners sing "They Call the Wind Maria," they've introduced the song (by referring to the wind as "Maria") but there has never been any suggestion that these characters have lost their loves, as the lyrics claim. The delivery of the song, with an ensemble singing and a driving rhythm, is unexpected and powerful, but the context detracts from it, as the song does not easily fit in this story.

When the best-known song from a musical leaves the audience wondering why these characters would sing it, it's time to jettison the revised book and put the focus back where it belongs.

Paint Your Wagon continues at The Geffen Playhouse at the Brentwood Theatre through January 9, 2005. For more information, visit www.geffenplayhouse.com

Brentwood Theatre -- Martin Markinson; Richard Willis; Erinn Tobin, General Manager. Geffen Playhouse -- Gilbert Cates, Producing Director; Randall Arney, Artistic Director; Stephen Eich, Managing Director. The Geffen Playhouse in association with Christopher Allen, D. Constantine Conte and Larry Spellman present Paint Your Wagon, Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner; Music by Frederick Loewe; Revised Book by David Rambo. Scenery and Lighting by Daniel Ionazzi; Costumes by David Kay Mickelsen; Casting by Phyllis Schuringa; Sound by Philip G. Allen; Production Stage Manager Grayson Meritt; Dramaturg Amy Levinson Millan. Musical Direction, Arrangements and Orchestrations by Steve Orich. Choreography by Kay Cole. Directed by Gilbert Cates.

Cast:
Ben Rumson - Tom Wilson
Jennifer Rumson - Jessica Rush
Ulysses Wilson - David Jennings
Wilmer Wagner, Old Prospector - Morgan Rusler
"Bull" Bullnack - Rob Kahn
Salem Strauss - Steven Hack
Jake Wippany - Robert Alan Clink
Cherry Jourdel, Sarah Woodling - Erika Amato
Preacher Bainbridge - Harry S. Murphy
Ah-Wah - Ian Shen
Miwok - Daniel Lujan
Julio Valveras - Alex Mendoza
Kwai Fa - Janelle Dote
Lupita, Elizabeth Woodling - Tracy Powell
Lily Smith - Sharon Lawrence
Father Ignacio - Joe J. Garcia
John Woodling - Andy Umberger Photo by Ken Howard


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Sharon Perlmutter






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