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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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Old Wicked Songs
by Jon Marans
Directed by Tim Ocel
New Jewish Theatre
March 17, 2016

 

Jerry Vogel, Will Bonfiglio Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Jerry Vogel, Will Bonfiglio
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

Old Wicked Songs is a story of a teacher and a student who are ostensibly here to study music, but who learn much more than that as their relationship progresses. It’s a play I hadn’t seen before, but am very glad now to have been given that opportunity by means of the current production from New Jewish Theatre.  It’s a superbly cast production, and it’s not to be missed.

The story takes place at the studio of music professor Josef Mashkan (Jerry Vogel) in Vienna, Austria in 1986. A young American piano student, Stephen Hoffman (Will Bonfiglio) has just arrived in the country with the intention of studying to become an accompanist. Stephen isn’t happy when he finds out that Mashkan isn’t the piano professor, but a singing teacher, and Stephen must study singing for three months before he can begin his piano instruction with the professor from whom he had wished to learn. The initially defensive, guarded Stephen is suspicious of the more demanding Mashkan at first, and this first meeting begins a series of instruction sessions and a relationship that will eventually change the lives of both men, who both have secrets they wish to hide.  They’re studying Robert Schumann’s song cycle Dichterliebe, with lyrics by the poet Heinrich Heine. Through the course of playing, singing, and discussing the songs and their meanings, as well as events in their own lives and the history of Vienna, Austria, and neighboring Germany, the two men learn more about each other and learn that there is more to both of them than they had initially thought. This all takes place against a backdrop of political controversy in Austria as Kurt Waldheim, whose military service in the German army during World War II was being called into question internationally.  Austria’s attitudes toward its own history involving the Nazi regime, as well as the memory of the Holocaust and its effect on those who have survived as well as the generations born after the war, become major issues in the play, as both Stephen and Mashkan’s personal stories eventually reveal.

This is an intensely personal play, and the love of music and poetry pervades it. The relationship between music and emotion, as well as joy and sadness, is emphasized by Mashkan, and both his life and Stephen’s directly illustrate that relationship as the story unfolds. The two actors here are perfectly cast. Vogel portrays the joy and the sadness of Mashkan’s life, as well as his deep love of music, with vivid clarity in a sensitive, engaging and at times heartbreaking performance. Bonfiglio is equally brilliant as Stephen, whose emotional journey throughout the play is clearly portrayed on Bonfiglio’s expressive face. Both actors display strong voices, as well, singing the songs with energy and passion, in English as well as German as the story’s progression necessitates.

As usual for New Jewish Theatre, the technical aspects of this production are also excellent. The set by Dunsi Dai is richly detailed, bringing a sense of authenticity to this representation of a music professor’s studio in an aging building. The costumes, by Michele Friedman Siler, suit the characters well, and Stephen’s clothes in particular serve to reflect his character’s growth throughout the course of the play. There’s also strong, atmospheric lighting by Maureen Berry and excellent sound design by Robin Wetherall.

This is a play about a student and a teacher, but it’s about a lot more than that. It’s about a love of music and song, and also about joy, regret, secrets and the importance of communication, as well as a person’s relationship with culture and history. It’s an expertly crafted play that presents characters with well-realized life stories that are memorably portrayed by two excellent actors at their finest. It’s the best production I’ve seen in St. Louis so far this year.

Jerry Vogel, Will Bonfiglio Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Jerry Vogel, Will Bonfiglio
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting Old Wicked Songs at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until April 3, 2016.

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