Paint Your Wagon

Encores - NY City Center - March 2015

Review by John Kenrick


 A charming story, a few stand-out songs, and a talented cast -- in 1951, that was enough to satisfy a Broadway audience.

The original production of Lerner and Loewe's Paint Your Wagon had all those assets, and thanks to City Center Encores, it has them again in 2015. While this musical will never rate as a lost goldmine, it is strewn with enough sparkling nuggets to warm the heart of any prospector . . . or, for that matter, any musical theatre buff.

The simple plot follows the swift rise of a town during the California Gold Rush of the 1850s -- and its  even swifter decline once the gold runs out. Like Finian's Rainbow, it ends when an inveterate fortune hunter, assured that his daughter is safely in the arms of a man she loves, heads off into the sunset to resume his endless search for dreamed-of wealth. Not much, but an engaging bit of fluff.

Keith Carradine is perfectly cast as Ben Rumson, a grizzled fortune hunter who discovers a fresh vein of gold. While his singing voice has thinned a bit since his Tony Award-winning run in The Will Rogers Follies, Carradine's folksy persona and masterful way with comic dialogue breathe life into Alan Jay Lerner's somewhat dusty script. It would be all too easy for contemporary audiences to despise a character who buys another man's wife to fill his bed, only to react with a shrug when she later abandons him for a younger gent. Carradine is so endearing that all of this is instantly acceptable, and even enjoyable.

The supporting cast is uniformly solid. Alexandra Socha is delightful as Rumson's daughter Jennifer, a teenager who is perplexed when her father's fellow prospectors (who have known her since early childhood) suddenly start reacting to her as an attractive young woman. She falls for a Mexican prospector, played with disarming sweetness by Justin Guarini. Anyone wondering why Nathaniel Hackmann would take time off from the current revival of Les Miserables to play a minor role in this concert production got their answer when his ravishing rendition of "They Call the Wind Maria" stopped the show.

And that marvelous song illustrates Paint Your Wagon's problem. Although it's book and score have ample amounts of humor and period atmosphere, the show's biggest number belongs to an ensemble member who sings it, then promptly retreats back into the chorus. The major characters, whose emotions and experiences are supposedly the sustaining heart of this musical, have nothing to match it. The energy is focused in the wrong place. But even if the show is not quite a masterpiece, Frederick Loewe's melodies are as seductive as ever, and Lerner's lovingly crafted lyrics are delights.

Speaking of the ensemble, it sings and dances superbly. A special nod to Michael Creighton, who does some thoroughly justified scene stealing as a gold-chasing Irishman. Director Marc Bruni staged this concert as thoroughly as any full production, and Denis Jones provided first rate choreography. Rob Berman and the Encores Orchestra were in top form. It is no wonder that the number of audience regulars who stick around after curtain calls to cheer for the musicians keeps visibly growing every year.

The Encores series was created to give theatregoers a chance to re-encounter musicals from the past that deserve a fresh hearing. A few productions from this series have gone on to Broadway runs, most notably the revival of Chicago that has been running since 1996. Paint Your Wagon will ever rate a return to Broadway. With new musicals charging upwards of $150 per seat, charm will never again be enough. But it is sweet to relish this tuneful reminder of a time when it was.

This production had a limited one week run in March 2015.

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