Theater Review: ‘Paint Your Wagon’
NEW YORK—”There’s gold in them thar hills,” as the recent Encores! production of the 1951 tuner “Paint Your Wagon” (book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, music by Frederick Loewe) amply demonstrated. While the production may not have represented the mother lode in terms of musical theater, it was certainly a rollicking and enjoyable experience.
The story is set in the days of the California Gold Rush (middle to late 1800s), in a place called “Rumson’s Creek,” so named because miner Ben Rumson (Keith Carradine) laid claim to the gold found there, through some rather unusual circumstances.
As word of Ben’s strike begins to spread, miners from all over start to arrive and soon there are approximately 400 men in the area. The only woman nearby is Ben’s daughter, Jennifer (Alexandra Socha), who has traveled with him since she was 3. Now that she’s just turned 16 and has reached the age of “maternity,” as she puts it, she’s beginning to cause some problems among the love-starved miners.
Ben’s solution is to send Jennifer back East, but before that can happen she finds herself falling in love with Julio Valveras (Justin Guarini), a Mexican miner with big dreams for when he eventually strikes it rich.
Big dreams is the central theme in “Paint Your Wagon.” The opening number (“I’m On My Way”) shows men from all walks of life leaving their homes and in some cases, loved ones, in a seemingly never-ending search for gold.
But having big dreams and being able to act responsibly enough to achieve them do not always go hand in hand, especially when temptations such as whisky and women are thrown into the mix. One conversation between two miners who’ve lost all their money in such pursuits hits home on this point.
The chance to see these numbers performed, often with winning choreography by Denis Jones, made the show more than worth seeing. One particularly enjoyable sequence occurred when a dance hall and saloon opens in town. When dancing girls soon follow, the women literally knocked the miners off their feet as they’re welcomed with open arms.
Other good songs included the ballads “I Talk to the Trees” and “Carino Mio,” both sung by Guarini and Socha; and the very enthusiastic “There’s a Coach Comin’ In,” which announced the girls’ arrival in the town.
The method used to display the coach initially is something similar to the way Encores! handled the flying of the title character in “It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman” a few years back.
This whole sequence regarding the treatment of women, including a moment where Elizabeth quite willingly displays herself (fully-clothed) for examination to the miners before they bid on her is perhaps one of the reasons the musical isn’t done often. Indeed, the 1969 movie version of the show went out of its way to make Elizabeth a much stronger and more independent woman than seen here.
The acting was excellent. Carradine did a fine job in personifying the American prospector, a genial, but ne’er-do-well sort, going from one gold strike to the next, always on the move and never putting down roots. It’s a feeling he put across masterfully in the song “Wand’rin’ Star.”
Ben probably isn’t the best choice for a husband—a point made clear more than once in his attitude towards Elizabeth and in the song “In Between.”
Socha had fun with the comic “What’s Goin’ On Here?” which addressed the subject of Jennifer no longer being just one of the boys in camp; and she also did very well with the poignant “How Can I Wait?” as Jennifer tries to understand her growing feelings for Julio.
Guarini did well as the proud Julio, determined to make enough money to buy a ranch of his own, while being bitter at the way life has treated him. Julio not only feels prejudice from the rest of the miners because of his ethnicity, but also because the land he’s working once belonged to Mexico.
Barber was fun as Elizabeth. While the character doesn’t have much depth, Barber was very good in the comic number “Trio.” The song revealed what she, Jacob, and Sarah really thought of each other and their situation.
If there’s a problem anywhere in the production, it would have to be with the book. The original was somewhat revised for this concert adaptation by Marc Acito. It felt a bit disjointed so that one songs jumped too quickly to the next, with not enough plot or dialogue between them. One such example of this rushed feeling occurred with “Whoop-Ti-Ay,” taking place moments after Elizabeth had been sold to the highest bidder.
A not-too-realistic look at days gone by, “Paint Your Wagon” is a wonderful tip of the hat to the American dream, a great deal of fun, and a work which will hopefully pop up on the stage again sometime soon.
Also in the cast: Timothy Hughes, Nicholas Ward, Nathaniel Hackmann, Mikey Winslow, Caleb Damschroder, Robyn Hurder, Robert Creighton, Jason Simon, Scott Wakefield, Steve Czarnecki, Adam Monley, Kevin Vortmann, Nicholas Dávila, Jenny Laroche, Melissa Hunter McCann, Shonica Gooden, Darien Crago, Kristin Piro, Naomi Kakuk, Casey Garvin, Justin Keyes, Harris Milgrim, Kevin Munhall, Robbie Roby, Jason Simon, and Nicholas Ward.
‘Paint Your Wagon’
Presented by Encores! at New York City Center
Closed: March 22
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.