It’s 1853, in the wilderness gold mining town of Rumson, in Northern California. There’s the town’s founder, grizzled widower Ben Rumson, his 16-year-old daughter Jennifer, 400 male miners, and an assortment of other characters.
These include Julio Valveras, a young Mexican miner, for whom Jennifer has feelings. She later goes off East to be educated. Then there’s Jacob Woodling, a Mormon who shows up with two wives, and is later persuaded to auction one off. A coachload of the “Fandango Girls,” arrive to entertain the menfolk. The show’s slight plot focuses on the town’s economic ups and downs and the romantic complications of the main characters.
The concert series Encores! “celebrates the rarely heard works of America’s most important composers and lyricists.” With Paint Your Wagon, they have selected a perfect candidate to demonstrate their mission. Until now, it hasn’t been revived in New York City, and though some of the songs have remained familiar, the show itself has faded into relative obscurity. Playwright Marc Acito and artistic director Jack Viertel are credited with this concert adaptation of the original book.
A hilarious sight gag is a cluster of townspeople waiting for the arrival of The Fandango Girls. One holds up a stick with a tiny cutout of a stagecoach. That’s periodically replaced with larger cutouts until the full sized cutout representing the stagecoach shows up. It’s representative of the show’s simple but inspired period look. This is enhanced by Peter Kaczorowski’s expert lighting design.
The large and superb Encores! Orchestra, led by music director and conductor Rob Berman, is on a platform raised above the performers and always in view, playing Lerner and Loewe’s distinguished score. Cutouts of trees surround them. Basic wooden elements suggesting the town are also parts of scenic consultant’s Anna Louizos’ fun and clever settings.
Denis Jones’ lively, often balletic Agnes de Mille-style choreography as performed by the highly talented cast and ensemble of thirty is at times thrilling. The company looks authentic in costume consultant Alejo Vietti’s wonderful getups. From the Fandango Girls’ red petticoats, to the tattered, grimy prospector’s clothes, and cowboy hats galore, the Old West is vibrantly recreated.
Director Marc Bruni’s artfully brisk staging keeps everything moving and is visually striking. The show is really a collection of fine Lerner and Loewe songs connected by Lerner’s tenuous and familiar plot, and is energized by Mr. Bruni’s highly creative work.
“Wand’rin Star,” is a wistful showcase for Keith Carradine who plays Ben Rumson. Like John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn, he enthusiastically embraces the role of a wily old codger with tremendous charm. Twenty-four years ago, as a handsome leading man, he created the title role in The Will Rogers Follies. Here, somewhat aged and with a bushy, gray beard, he offers his folksy charisma and marvelous voice which are still in evidence.
Alexandra Socha winningly plays his feisty daughter Jennifer, and exhibits great singing skills throughout, particularly in her duet of “I Talk to the Trees,” sung with the excellent Justin Guarini, as her Mexican beloved, Julio.
Nathaniel Hackmann as a leading townsman forcefully performs several songs with the company, and his solo portion of “They Call the Wind Maria,” is a standout.
William Youmans provides terrific comic support as Mr. Woodling, as do Melissa Van Der Schyff and Jenni Barber as his two wives.
Paint Your Wagon opened on Broadway in 1951 and ran for a somewhat disappointing 289 performances. It opened in London in 1953 and ran for 477 performances. A poorly received and heavily revised film version starring Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood, and Jean Seberg was released in 1969.
Lyricist and book writer Alan Jay Lerner (1918-1986) and composer Frederick Loewe (1901-1988) wrote this show following hit Brigadoon (1947), which ran on Broadway for 587 performances. Then they wrote the legendary trilogy of Broadway’s My Fair Lady (1956), the original film musical Gigi (1958), and Broadway’s Camelot (1960). Loewe retired after that, but they reunited for the 1973 stage adaptation of Gigi, and the 1974 film adaptation of The Little Prince.
Definitely minor and not in the same league with this celebrated team’s masterpieces, this highly entertaining revival reveals it to be a simpler but still quite accomplished work.
Paint Your Wagon (through March 22, 2015)
New York City Center Encores!
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.nycitycenter.org
Running time: two hours and fifteen minutes including one intermission