With a brand-spanking new script by Jon Marans, all new-orchestrations, a reshuffled song score, masterful scenic and costume designs, and a robust cast and choreographic style, the 5th Avenue Theatre’s reimagining of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon has a lot more than a new coat of paint on it. It now seems, with just a little more refinement, ready to roll on to a lengthy Broadway revival, and new life in stock, regional and amateur productions.
Marans’ new take does seem at times a bit too reflective of a contemporary time set for a tale told in mid 1850’s Gold Rush era California, and too many interesting new characters are weakened by the fact that we no longer have Lerner and Loewe to create character specific songs for them. What worked so well in Ragtime’s mix of characters from varied social levels and racial backgrounds is attempted here with mixed yet commendable results. Marans’ script focuses on showing the way an early melting pot of nationalities and religious faiths attempts to align in their pursuit of gold, only to shatter via gold fever, diminishing returns, and clashes of heritage.
The best drawn characters are loner trapper Ben Rumson who rescues a Mormon wife Cayla Woodling from her brutish, con-man husband and quickly takes her for his own bride despite being a recent widower. He befriends Armando, scion of a once wealthy Mexican family, and the three build and share a house together. As the curtain falls on Act 1, a Coach full of floozies for the town’s new pleasure palace arrives with one additional passenger, Ben’s estranged daughter Jennifer, who Cayla has quietly sent for. Fresh from private schooling , Jennifer is primed for a risky mixed-race relationship with Armando, which tests her Father’s liberality. The smarmy, mustache twirling businessman Jake Rutland, his slave Wesley, free black man H. Ford, gambling addicted Irishman William, and two Chinese brothers, Ming-Li and Guang-Li fill out the principal roles, and the actor-singers taking on these roles are all of high-caliber.
Robert Cuccioli is a Broadway vet best known in the title role in Jekyll and Hyde and in ill-fated second-rate shows like Lone Star Love, and Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark. He shows here that he’s an absolute first rate, vintage Broadway leading man in the Alfred Drake, John Raitt, Richard Kiley tradition. To hear as he wraps his rich, impressive Baritone around the haunting Wandrin’ Star, the gently comic In Between, the wistful I Still See Elisa and the show’s perennial smash song They Call the Wind Maria is to know true musical theatre bliss.
Kendra Kassebaum is every bit Cuccioli’s equal is as Cayla, a character who is as tough, yet tender as the unfamiliar territory she comes to call home. She anchors the beautiful shared reconfigured version How Can I Wait and acts with real honesty and great humor.
Justin Gregory Lopez is a major find as Armando, possessing a gorgeous, strong rangy tenor on Another Autumn and I Talk to the Trees, expert comedic timing, and robust sexual chemistry opposite Kirsten deLohr Helland’s spirited Jennifer. Ms. deLohr Helland is lovely, and shows a developing range of character maturity and vocal skill equal to her well-known brassy vocal style and comic chops, though sadly the show drops two of the character’s original songs, What’s Goin’ On Here?, and All for Him.
Key shining lights of the supporting cast are Rodney Hicks as the dapper free black man H. Ford, Eric Ankrim as the complicated Irish miner William, Louis Hobson as the mustache twirling wheeler-dealer Jake Rutland, and young Eli Lotz as Craig, a teen orphaned on the road to California, who becomes Jake’s bartender.
Director David Armstrong pulls the multiple storylines effectively, and paces the show well. Rising star Choreographer Josh Rhodes (a Tony® nominee this year for Bright Star) creates amazing stage pictures and rousingly bawdy choreography which plays out beautifully on Jason Sherwood’s sets which are highlighted by an absolutely gorgeous drop with an omnipresent sun or moon and a well used turntable . Lighting by Tom Sturge is all limpid loveliness, and David C. Woolard’s costumes are authentic and eye-catching. The new orchestrations by August Eriksmoen help the Lerner and Loewe (and on two songs, film composer Andre Previn) score sound fresh as a country springtime, while Ian Eisendrath and Albert Evans created musical arrangements that sear the soul, played to perfection by the 5th Avenue orchestra.
The final song in this show, Lerner and Loewe’s Take the Wheels Off the Wagon, is a hopeful, upbeat charmer written for a post-Broadway tour. I suggest the 5th Avenue production keep those wheels on, and take this wagon, after a little tightening, to Broadway where it can finally be seen as the melodious winner that it is.
Paint Your Wagon runs through June 25, 2016 at the 5th Avenue Theatre 1308 Fifth Ave., Downtown Seattle through June 25th. For tickets or information contact the 5th Avenue box office at 206-625-1900 or visit them online at 5thavenue.org.