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Paint Your Wagon
Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, Music by Frederick Loewe
New Book by Jon Marans
Directed and Choreographed by Josh Rhodes
The Muny
July 27, 2019

Mamie Parris, Matt Bogart
Photo: The Muny

Paint Your Wagon is a show with a complicated history, but a wonderful Lerner and Loewe score with several memorable songs. Now, as the penultimate production of its 101st season, The Muny has given this show a fresh coat of paint, so to speak, with a brand new book, a revised song list, and a new story with elements of the original, all performed by an especially strong cast and with remarkable production values.

The source material is tricky. Paint Your Wagon is a show that is known these days more for a few of the songs than the plot. The 1969 film is remembered somewhat, but that’s often seen as more of a novelty, and the original stage version isn’t remembered much at all, but both versions have those songs by a legendary musical theatre writing team, and some memorable characters, so this new version has playwright Jon Marans re-imagining some of the basic plot elements and essentially creating a new story. It’s still focused on the mid-18th Century California Gold Rush, but bringing more characters into the plot and emphasizing the international draw of that event. The show makes excellent use of Caite Hevner’s video design, and begins with projections of vintage newspaper ads in various languages, leading into the opening “I’m On My Way” number in which a variety of characters from around the world head west in search of gold, adventure, and a measure of freedom. Among these characters include the widowed former tavernkeeper Ben Rumson (Matt Bogart), who has sent his daughter Jennifer (Maya Keleher) off to college and has set out on his own. There’s also Cayla Woodling (Mamie Parris), who travels with her brutal husband Craig (Michael James Reed); half-brothers Jake (Preston Truman Boyd), and the enslaved Wesley (Allan K. Washington); free black businessman H. Ford (Rodney Hicks), who seeks to help Wesley obtain his freedom; the Irish immigrant William (Bobby Conte Thornton), who flees the potato famine in hopes of making some money to send to his wife and child back home; and Chinese brothers Ming Li (Austin Ku) and Guang Li (Raymond J. Lee), who often clash over their different goals and views of American culture. The wandering Ben soon meets up with Mexican-American Armando (Omar Lopez-Cepero), who becomes his business partner. That’s just the set-up. There’s a lot that happens in this play, as the characters arrive at a mining settlement known as No Name City and begin to see their fortunes in the mines, as well as forming friendships, romances, rivalries, and dreams for the future. There are a lot of subplots, and it takes a while for the various threads to be tied together, with a decidedly serious turn in the second act that happens a little late and isn’t built up as well as it could be, but for the most part it’s an intriguing, engaging story, with some memorable characters and situations.

The glorious songs are there, too, with some lush arrangements by Ian Eisendrath, Jason DeBord, and Albert Evans and an excellent Muny Orchestra conducted by Music Director Sinai Tabak. There are a few new songs, or at least new to this show, with one (“What Do Other Folk Do?”) being strikingly similar to a song (“What Do the Simple Folk Do?”) from another Lerner and Loewe classic, Camelot. The plots could stand to be tightened and streamlined here and there, and some of the character motivations and arcs (especially Ben’s and William’s) need to be made more clear, but generally this new story works, with humor, poignancy, and some important themes including acceptance, personal responsibility, the dangers of materialism and greed, and more.

The Old West setting is well-realized on the vast Muny stage by means of Michael Schweikardt’s expansive, versatile set that uses the turntable well and consists of several detailed set pieces. The costumes by Amy Clark are vibrant and detailed, as well. There’s also stunning lighting by John Lasiter that helps set and maintain the tone of the show through its various transitions. The sound design, by John Shivers and David Patridge, is fine as well, although there were some noticeable issues with feedback and malfunctioning microphones on opening night. I’m hoping these issues will be smoothed out as the show continues its run. The staging is lively, with some remarkable choreography especially in the ensemble production numbers. There are also some fun bits of Muny spectacle that work especially well on this huge stage–such as the use of real Clydesdale carriage horses in a key number at the beginning of Act 2.

The cast is large, with quite a few named characters that it takes a while to keep track of them all, although the performers are universally excellent, with some particularly strong singing. Bogart as Ben makes a strong impression on stage with an authoritative and mostly amiable presence, with a powerful voice to match. He’s well-matched by Parris as the mistreated but determined Cayla, and their story develops well. Lopez-Cepero is also impressive and in excellent voice as Armando, who has some memorable scenes and duets with the powerfully-voiced Keleher as Jennifer. Other standouts include Thornton as the increasingly desperate and conflicted William; Ku and Lee as the the close-knit but frequently at odds Li brothers: and Hicks and Washington as H. Ford and Wesley, who form a strong bond as friends and allies against the stubbornly possessive and increasingly menacing Jake, also impressively played by Boyd. There’s a strong ensemble to back the leads, as well, from miners to tavern dancers, all singing and dancing with energy and style, bringing new life to a classic score and a newly revitalized story.

Overall, I would say that the Muny’s Paint Your Wagon is an entertaining success, although it could still use some work in terms of plotting and character motivations. There’s definitely some gold here, but there’s still some more mining to be done. Still, it’s an impressive debut of this new version, for the most part, and it fills up that colossal Muny stage with drama, humor, and a great deal of energy. It’s another good example of the Muny’s occasional role as an incubator of new shows, or revamped versions of older shows that are being given a new life for today’s audiences.

Cast of Paint Your Wagon
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Paint Your Wagon in Forest Park until August 2, 2019

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My Fair Lady
Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, Music by Frederick Loewe
Directed by Marc Bruni
The Muny
June 15, 2015

Anthony Andrews, Peggy Billo, Alexandra Silber, Paxton Whitehead Photo by Phillip Hamer The Muny

Anthony Andrews, Peggy Billo, Alexandra Silber, Paxton Whitehead
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

My Fair Lady is an iconic musical. It’s often considered one of the greatest musicals of all time, and as such has been revived many times since its Broadway debut in 1956. The problem that comes with a show as well-known as this one, though, is that it’s been performed so many times that it’s easy for productions to appear dated or just to lose that sense of “newness” and energy that’s important in any production. Fortunately, the Muny’s 2015 season debut production does not suffer from that problem. In fact, the Muny has brought to the stage a My Fair Lady that has all the verve and vibrancy of a new production while still honoring the classic spirit of this timeless musical.

The story is familiar–a less cynical, musical take on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion in which curmudgeonly linguistics expert Professor Henry Higgins (Anthony Andrews) encounters Covent Garden flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Alexandra Silber) and bets his new friend, fellow linguist Colonel Pickering (Paxton Whitehead) that he can turn Eliza into a well-spoken lady and pass her off as such at an upcoming grand ball.  Along the way, Eliza learns how to assert her own independence as she deals with Higgins, Pickering, her opportunistic father Alfred P. Doolittle (Michael McCormick) and some of the upper class people she meets, such as Higgins’s mother (Zoe Vonder Haar) and an eager and somewhat silly new suitor, Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Matthew Scott).  All the familiar songs are here, as well, from “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and “I Could Have Danced All Night” to “A Little Bit of Luck”, “On the Street Where You Live”, “Get Me to the Church On Time”, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”, and more.

The battle of wits between Higgins and Eliza is, as usual, the main attraction in this production, and it is impeccably played out by the marvelous Andrews and Silber. Andrews plays a Higgins who’s stubbornness is apparent, although there is just enough vulnerability and charm to make his story believable, and by the time he gets to the perfectly played  “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” it’s clear that, although he’s still the same guy, he’s been changed just a little bit for the better. Silber plays a tough, gutsy Eliza whose transformation from flower girl to lady is thoroughly convincing. Unlike some other Elizas I’ve seen, the transformation is played more as an empowerment, and it’s very clear that, although her speech and manners are altered, she’s still recognizably the same person by the end of the play–just wiser and more mature. She also has a strong, clear soprano and strong presence especially on “I Could Have Danced All Night”, “Show Me” and “Without You”.  These two are a formidable duo, with convincing combative chemistry, and their notable confrontation scenes in Act 2 (in Higgins’s parlor and later, at his mother’s house) are ideally played.

The supporting cast is uniformly strong, as well. Whitehead is an ideal Pickering, with an amiable personality and excellent comic timing. McCormick, in a role that’s easy to overplay as Doolittle, strikes just the right balance between reality and caricature, bringing spark and life to “A Little Bit of Luck”, “Get Me to the Church on Time” and his scenes with Eliza.  Scott is a find as Freddy–probably the best Freddy I’ve ever seen, in being able to effectively portray a slightly foolish lovestruck young man with just the right amount of charm that doesn’t go over the top to cloying or annoying. His “On the Street Where You Live” is a soaring highlight of the show. There are also strong performances from Peggy Billo as Higgins’s no-nonsense housekeeper Mrs. Pearce, and local favorite Zoe Vonder Haar as Higgins’s strong-willed but fair-minded mother. There’s also a very strong ensemble, supporting the main cast well and displaying much energy and skill in production numbers like the magnificent “Ascot Gavotte” and the delightfully choreographed (by Chris Bailey) “Get Me to the Church On Time.” Vocally, everyone’s in good form, achieving a sound that’s recognizably 50’s influenced but also suitably fresh and vibrant.

Visually, the huge Muny stage is used to excellent effect. As with the performances, noting is over or underdone. The design elements–from Timothy R. Mackabee’s simple but stylish set to Amy Clark’s wonderfully colorful and detailed costumes–strike just the right balance of grandiosity and realism. There’s also excellent lighting work from designer John Lasiter. The only real issue on opening night was sound, with some mics not working properly and a few lines being missed, although I expect that will be dealt with as the show continues its run.

My Fair Lady is an excellent celebration of tradition as well as a prime example of the excellence brought to the company by Executive Director Mike Isaacson.  With energy, style and ideal casting, this show presents the best of what the Muny has to offer. It’s a grand introduction to the 2015 season, and I look forward to seeing what else the Muny has in store this summer.

Michael McCormick (center) and the cast of My Fair Lady Photo by Phillip Hamer The Muny

Michael McCormick (center) and the cast of My Fair Lady
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

My Fair Lady runs at the Muny in Forest Park until June 21, 2015.

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