Review: ‘Paint Your Wagon’ gets a polished reboot at Ordway

Rohan Preston, Star Tribune 8/11/16

“Paint Your Wagon,” the 1951 Lerner and Loewe musical about California’s Gold Rush, has long been forgotten — for good reason. Unlike “My Fair Lady,” the duo’s most famous work, the show seemed dated, its characters remote.

Enter playwright Jon Marans, a Pulitzer finalist for “Old Wicked Songs.” The producers threw out Alan Jay Lerner’s book, kept the songs by composer Frederick Loewe and lyricist Lerner, and enlisted Marans to craft a new story that’s exciting and relevant. Director David Armstrong’s robust production of “Wagon,” which opened Wednesday at St. Paul’s Ordway Center, teems with larger-than-life characters who have dreams and ambitions to match.

To be sure, the epic, romantic songs help us connect with these swaggering personages. But Marans’ story calls out clearly to Americans in the 21st century. As he shows the human friction in an 1850s boom town, the playwright foregrounds such issues as immigration and our multicultural mix, showing these hot-button topics have historical antecedents. Marans also broadens our mythology of the West beyond cowboys and Indians.

As the show opens on Jason Sherwood’s set, defined by hanging ropes and a giant turntable, a parade of newcomers rushes to California, all singing “I’m On My Way.” There’s Irishman William (Eric Ankrim), leaving his wife and child with a promise to return. Two Chinese brothers, Ming-Li (Steven Eng) and Guang-Li (Mikko Juan), hope to strike it rich and then return home. Barbershop owner H. Ford (Rhett George), a free man of color, has come from the East, joining southerner Jake Rutland (Jared Michael Brown), who has brought along his enslaved half-brother, Wesley (Kyle Robert Carter).

There’s also a Mormon man and his two wives, one of whom, Cayla (Ann Michels), is seeking to escape his abusive yoke. And Armando (Justin Gregory Lopez), a “Californio” of Spanish heritage who lost his land when Mexico surrendered the territory, now delivers the town’s mail. Meanwhile, Jake offers dancing girls to the lot of frustrated, ornery men.

Like all boom towns, No Name City is a rambunctious and unbalanced place, governed more by custom than law. Enter Ben Rumson (Robert Cuccioli), a Tennessean with obvious moral authority. A miner in the original version, Marans makes him a quiet hero who opens up like a flower as the action progresses.

The music, conducted with spirit by Kat Sherrell, sweeps you up with its gusto and nuance. The cast is nearly flawless, with standout performances by George and Michels (“Whoop-Ti-Ay”), Cuccioli (“Wand’rin’ Star”) and Lopez (“Another Autumn”).

The book misses the mark in at least one place.

There’s a fatality in “Wagon” as people’s ambitions and greed collide. After that killing, we get one of the show’s big numbers, “They Call the Wind Maria,” sung by Rumson. But the character delivering that number should be the one who’s the closest to the deceased, the one whose emotions are the rawest. That miscue lessens the emotional impact of the song, even though Cuccioli proves himself a worthy star.

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