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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, June 17, 2016 - Volume 44 Issue 25
Paint Your Wagon at 5th Avenue - and off you go . . .
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Paint Your Wagon at 5th Avenue - and off you go . . .

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN A&E Writer

PAINT YOUR WAGON
5TH AVENUE THEATRE
Through June 25


Paint Your Wagon is perhaps one of the only Western musicals that can be named off the top of anyone's head. While there have been several others in the genre, Paint Your Wagon is the most famous, largely due to the Lerner & Loewe score, and the film adaptation starring Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin. The 5th Avenue Theatre is currently putting on this rarely performed show with a newly rewritten script by Jon Marans, with permission from the Lerner estate.

The storyline (at least in the newly revised version) is set in 1853 with the California Gold Rush at the plot's center. The gold calls to people of all sorts: an unscrupulous entrepreneur who owns a slave, an Irish man with a family back home, a pair of Chinese brothers, a young boy and his father&to all head out West, all with the hopes of making their fortune. Former slave owner Ben Rumson is a surly, burly fur trapper enjoying his solitude for over a year when he encounters a chance meeting with Armando, a Mexican trader. Rumson is a loner but agrees to becoming business partners with Armando. Rumson believes that men should be treated equally...for the most part. In town the two men find a 'wife for sale' and Rumson ends up buying Cayla, more out of pity for her situation than anything emotional. Armando, who always wanted to be an architect, builds a house for them on the side of a mountain, and soon all three of them are living together. Cayla forges Rumson's signature on a letter to his estranged 18-year-old daughter Jennifer, a proper young woman attending school in Georgia, inviting the girl to visit. After Jennifer arrives and discovers the truth, she settles in and soon Armando and Jennifer have a romance. With racial tension evolving in town, Rumson must decide what kind of man he is, where his prejudices lie, and if he can overcome them for the happiness of his daughter.

There are four main characters in this production; two definite leads, Rumson and Cayla, and two strong supportive roles, Armando and Jennifer. While other characters are pivotal to this newly rewritten plot, these four are clearly the noticeable performances. Justin Gregory Lopez plays Armando. Lopez makes his 5th Avenue debut showing us he has talent. His voice is strong and quite smooth, especially during the haunting duet, 'I Talk to Trees' with Kirsten deLohr Helland who plays Jennifer. Ms. deLohr Helland is - thankfully - becoming a staple in the 5th Avenue's stable of local talents. Her voice is always strong and she never fails to beautifully handle the lyrics she is asked to sing.

Broadway actress Kendra Kassebaum plays Cayla, Rumson's newly bought wife. Ms. Kassebaum does an excellent job. Her voice is strong and pure and when she wraps her vocals around romantic comedic songs like 'In Between,' her talents truly show off. Ms. Kassebaum's expressions are wonderful and with those large doe eyes, it is easy to read her on stage - she is having a good time doing something she excels at, and that is an honest performance. The main star - without doubt - is Ben Rumson who is played by Broadway star Robert Cuccioli. Mr. Cuccioli's voice is deep and easily resonates throughout the theatre. His stage presence is instantly noted and seems perfectly fit for the role of loner Ben Rumson. His vocals make us feel the longing in such songs as 'Wand'rin' Star' or the show's biggest number 'They Call the Wind Maria.'

There are several members of the ensemble that do excellent work as well. In fact there isn't anyone that seems to be miscast or badly represented. Broadway actor Louis Hobson plays the businessman Jake with a good amount of sneer in his voice. The Chinese brothers (played by Steven Eng and Mikko Juan) both do well in their roles representing one that wants to keep to the honored tradition, while his brother would like to become more acclimated with his surroundings. Rodney Hicks (playing H. Ford - a free man of color) is one who knows how to take a smaller role and make it much more noticeable and enjoyable. The entire cast - whether in featured roles or ensemble - does an excellent job with the songs and dances in this production.

So what has been re-envisioned and rewritten? That's hard to say exactly. My only knowledge of the musical's plot is the several synopses I've read online, and even those differ. I think it's safe to say that most of the racial subplots (which drive a good portion of the show) were added at this time. The song presentation list is in a very different order than either of its previous incarnations, with many of the songs now being sung by different characters than originally presented. Even the big, breakaway hit from the show, 'They Call The Wind Maria,' has been changed from a haunting ballad into an up-tempo swing-sounding number.

That's not to say that it doesn't work well. It does. The new racial subtext plays within the parameters of the musical, and very few instances pushed the boundaries of cliché. The script does touch on several prejudices: a slave vs. a free black man, the Chinese brother's attempts at assimilation to the resistance of others, the poverty of the Irish, Mormon polygamy, and even a subtle reference to the American colonialism of Mexican lands in California. But somehow it works together, and since it is a musical, it can push the boundaries of plausibility just a tad.

The setting of the stage needs to be mentioned. Jason Sherwood (credited Scenic Designer) did an excellent job of staying within the theme and not getting too carried away with kitsch. The set is laced with hanging ropes to represent the trees. The backdrops look like painted canvases, showing a much larger-than-life sun/moon to add a Western mood to the entire production.

For more information and tickets, call the 5th Avenue Theatre at 206-625-1900 or visit www.5thavenue.org.



Following the success of Brigadoon in 1947, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's Paint Your Wagon opened on Broadway in late 1951 and ran for 289 performances lasting under a year. The show less than thrilled the critics, but the score was definitely noticed. A decade later the film version was released starring Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood. Several new songs were added to the film written by Alan Jay Lerner and Andre Previn. Paint Your Wagon helped pave the way for Lerner and Loewe to continue on with a long line of hits including My Fair Lady, Camelot, and Gigi.

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