Justin Gregory Lopez, Robert Cuccioli and Kendra Kassebaum star in the new Paint Your Wagon.
This is not your parent’s Learner & Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon! The redone book and score now playing at the 5th Avenue Theater is bright, beautiful and gets your toes tapping. The set is spectacular, as are: the costumes, staging and directing. The orchestration, newly done choreography, vocal chorus work and most of the duets are very well done as is Robert Cuccioli’s (as Ben Rumson) “They Call The Wind Maria”. Charming and able acting by Justin Gregory Lopez as Armando and Rodney Hicks as H. Ford add depth to the production. And, it comes together for a good night of musical theater. Get tickets for all those reasons. Alas, it is not such a good night for American history.
The company of Lerner & Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon at the 5th Avenue Theater. Photo by Tracey Martin.
If you want a fun night of musical theater that is constructed like a modern musical morality play set in an interesting but mythical version and vision of the Gold Rush (and, that is ok by you…) this new production of the oft reworked book and the original score fits the bill. The traditional music of Learner and Lowe gets a re-sequencing and additions that work. My real regret is that it is billed as history and is set in a time period that defies the new story line.
Writers, historians and audience members must take pause at the claim by director David Armstrong that the eight year task of rewriting of the book (done by Jon Marans who also agrees) the play now “…reflect[s] the true history of the California Gold Rush…” It’s sooo ain’t so. That is not to say that the new story arc – an over-lay of twenty-first century liberal values, idealism, colloquialisms, and vernacular do not work in this production, they do. But, in regards to reflecting history…the history of the California Gold Rush…this story set in that time period? No. No. No.
Ironically, in a big way, the new book tries to address prejudice (so horrible to human life during the Gold Rush era) by setting a fairy tale version of goodness and equality in the exact era where in reality racism was so rampant and so devastating on so many levels. It is strange to me that the Irish character of William and the Mormon Jameson Woodling (a left over from the book of Mormon?) did not escape racist barbs in this production.
Nor, is there any mention of the eradication of the Native people of California – a very poignant piece of Gold Rush history that can’t be repackaged and tied up with a nice bow as this production attempts to do with happy couple’s across ethnicities and stereotypes being together (is there a hint of a gay relationship between the black men?) all happily at the end singing “Take the Wheels Off the Wagon”. Again, ironic. The issue of prostitution, shown merrily in this show but not really addressed has also a whole other history particular to the Gold Rush.
If you are looking for “true history” (intimated in the program several times that it will be here) in the “revisal” know: it is absent or misportrayed. Though some of the plot lines are based on some very broad stokes of reality. My advice: Don’t go to see the history – go to see the musical theater. For the true and fascinating history of the Gold Rush and the evolution of this particular musical theater piece Paint Your Wagon goggling is your best bet.