"Maria Maria they call the wind Maria" these words with their beautiful tune have been playing constantly in my head since I saw Paint Your Wagon at the Ordway Wednesday night. Lerner and Loewe seem to be masters of the ear worm, and also of the Broadway blockbuster in the mid twentieth century, with shows such as My Fair Lady and Brigadoon. Paint Your Wagon however has not lived on in popular musical theater in quite the same way. That could be because of the weak story, the 1969 movie largely changed it, and it got another facelift from Pulitzer Prize nominated playwright Jon Marans this time around. Marans rewrote Lerner's book, rearranging the songs, and creating a much more diverse story which makes the musical well worth seeing.
Paint Your Wagon takes place in California during the Gold Rush, following the ups and down of one town and the people who are drawn to it with the prospect of wealth. There is Jake Rutland the business man who claims land, and builds a town to get rich off of those looking for gold. Wesley his slave who longs for his freedom and Ford, a free black man who befriends Wesley. Ming Li and Guang Li, brothers from China, and William an immigrant from Ireland who all plan to return home once they have enough money. Armando a Mexican whose family lived in California for generations, Ben Rumson a fur trader escaping his life out east. And Cayla Woodling who escapes her abusive husband when she tells him to sell her and ends up with Ben. All of them seeking to change their lives and at the same time forced to live and work with people different than them for the first time in their lives.
The interweaving of all these stories is quite ambitious to take on. In an interview with Jon Marans that is printed in the program he discusses not wanting the show to have an official chorus but to focus on the individuality of all the characters and the stories. The giant turn table which revolves on stage assists in this story telling, in one scene it can transition quite seamlessly from one individual's story to another. The song How Can I Wait, which in the original book and libertto was sung by only one character (who in the new telling isn't even introduced until later in the story), now becomes a beautifully orchestrated group number as the stage rotates and everyone sings about their dreams. Acting as one of the best "i want" set up songs I have seen in a musical, especially unique in that it didn't just focus on one character but all.
The cast of Paint Your Wagon, photo by Tracy Martin.
The visual design team of Jason Sherwood (scenic design), David C Woolard (Costume Design) and Tom Sturge (Lighting Design), obviously know how to collaborate well. A backdrop of a large round moon and a mountainous vista seem to be formed from tattered and stretched burlap and were beautifully lit in different scenes, creating senses of serenity, awe and drama. Large groups of ropes hung as trees completing the landscape, and the costume design felt authentic to the time.
Finally the revolving stories of all these individuals were brought to life by very talented actors on stage. The stand out being Justin Gregory Lopez who played Armando, his comedic timing was perfect and his voice was beautiful and clear. Robert Cucciloi's rich baritone seemed to cut clear across the western landscape as Ben Rumson.
Paint Your Wagon is currently playing at the Ordway until August 21st. Anyone who is a fan of traditional musical theater should be sure to see this show before it leaves town.
Also if anyone is looking for a recording of Paint Your Wagon the 2015 Encores! Cast Recording is beautiful and high quality. (It is a recording of the original libretto and arrangements).
I would like to thank the Ordway for inviting me to this show.