Photo by Tracy Martin.
Updating classic musicals is tricky. People have their favorite moments, lyrics, and renditions that get a pleasant polish from nostalgia. If you’re picking a show to update, Lerner and Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon is a pretty good pick – the original show has a number of script problems in the modern era, and not too many people know it despite its successful 1952 Broadway production and a 1969 film. The film took significant liberties with the source material, and in the last decade several attempts have been made to update or fix what are now considered to be insensitive and shallow treatments of race.
- Read Basil Considine’s interview with Steven Eng of Paint Your Wagon.
For the most part, the fact that Paint Your Wagon has been revised will pass over audience member’s heads – the script by Jon Marans and musical arrangements by Ian Eisendrath and Albert Evans sparkle. If you do know the score (either in its movie or original cast recording forms), do be aware that almost all of the songs have been moved around, and occur for completely reasons in the new plot. Said plot mostly takes after the outline of the original Broadway version, but there’s no need to brush up – it’s perfectly accessible without any back story, although it’ll help if you know what decade the musical is set in. If you’ve heard it before, “They Call the Wind Maria” is a little odd as the climactic number for Act 2, but Armstrong’s arrangement is quite thrilling, much like a Postmodern Jukebox cover changing how you think about a familiar melody.
A feature of this new version is that it has a broader engagement with race, with some interesting but not distracting parallels with present-day events. Director David Armstrong guides the cast through a smooth arc that has few slow moments and many intertwining strands. A prominent thread follows the adventures of Chinese immigrants Ming-Li (Steven Eng) and Guang-Li (Mikko Juan), who well-capture the tensions inherent with migration, integration, and retaining identity. The main narrative, however, coalesces around the conflict between entrepreneur Jake Rutland (Jared Michael Brown) and the more principled but gruff Ben Rumson (Robert Cuccioli).
Rumson’s relationships with loneliness and Cayla (Ann Michels) are the source of some of the musical’s loveliest tunes, including “I Was Born Under a Wandering Star” and the lively “Whoop-Ti-Ay”. Michels, a local addition to this production from Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre, showcases what has become her powerhouse charisma and deft handling of obstinant male casts. Vocally, however, Cuccioli is the show’s clear powerhouse. His vocal colors in this show are a very different sound than musical theater fans may expect, based on his appearance in the original Jekyll and Hyde and his more recent appearance in Spiderman: Turn off the Dark (the latter as the Green Goblin). Different isn’t bad, though – there’s an emotional gravitas in subtle inflections that does much to carry events in ways that the half-abstracted scenery does not.
Speaking of scenery: A clear star of this production is the giant sun/moon that ascends and descends as it passes across the stage. In photos, it looks a little hokey. In person, it’s a powerful effect.
Paint Your Wagon plays through August 21 at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul.