REVIEW | 5th Ave's 'Paint Your Wagon' inconsistent

Hitch your wagon and head to 5th Avenue Theatre for a celebration of Gold Fever. The world premiere of Alan Jay Lerner (lyrics) and Frederick Lowe’s (music) 1951 Gold Rush musical “Paint Your Wagon” has opened.

The production touts a brand new book by Jon Marans. It promises to be different from the original production and different again from the 1969 film version starring Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin and Jean Seaburg. (Yes, they sang. )

There have been previous world premieres of “Paint Your Wagon,” one in 2004, and a revised version in 2007. Neither production made it to Broadway. We’ll wait and see about this one.  

Set in 1849-1850 in a California town, No Name City, everyone and his brother come from near and far to seek their fortune. The plot tries for a fresh spin on age-old dilemmas: Father/daughter angst, greed that leads to violence and prejudice, a forbidden love and the desperation of loss.

The cast is fine — not a rotter in the bunch — and the ensemble numbers delight with rough and tumble charm. Ian Eisendrath’s orchestrations are outstanding, especially the romantic rhythms of the Spanish guitar. And Josh Rhodes’ choreography is lively and full of gusto. The only gal in town gets tossed into the air by prospectors, her petticoats whirling in abandon. This contrasts nicely with the slow-moving tableau of miners executing robotic body movements  

Tall trees are fashioned from twisted ropes dangling down from the top of the proscenium. The action plays out on a “Lazy Susan” revolving stage, a la “Les Miserables.” The mountain vista could use a few sparkling stars; it has a cardboard look. Luckily, it’s often overshadowed by a giant full moon. 

This production is not as racy as the 1969 film version, in which Eastwood and Marvin co-shared the charms of Seaberg. In the new stage version, the only women being shared are the floozies. 

Stereotypes are rampant. Of course, the Irishman drinks too much and gambles away his fortune. Of course, the minorities can’t sit with the “white” miners, and the black men are called “boys.” And of course, the women obey man’s every command.

Characters have been renamed, and their origins changed. The hero and widower, Ben Rumson, is now a fur trader and former senator from Nashville. His daughter Jennifer is now an educated, fashionable East Coast belle. The tunes have been shuffled around, and two have been lifted from the film.

If there is any heart in this production, it belongs to Armando, dynamically played by Justin Gregory Lopez. He’s terrific as the Mexican aristocrat whose family lost its wealth and has landed on his feet to become Ben’s partner and best friend.  Lopez’s exquisite tenor and his comedic timing and delivery are perfect.  The musical comes alive when he’s on stage, heartrending when he performs one of the show’s popular numbers, “I Talk to the Trees” and romantic when he and Jennifer, the lovely Kirsten deLohr Helland, declare their love in the tender duet. “Cara Mio.”

Robert Cucciola, as Ben, sings beautifully, but has obviously borrowed stereotypical poses from classic westerns.  But everyone is swept away when Cucciola sings the 11 o’clock number, “They Call the Wind Maria” (Maria as in Mariah). It’s a show-stopping moment. and he delivers his magnificent baritone with passion and panache.

As ever, women are scarce in this saga. A Mormon card-shark with his two wives breezes into town to fleece the menfolk. He sells one of his wives, Cayla, a sassy Kendra Kassebaum, to the highest bidder.  And a sexually hesitant Ben proves that chivalry isn’t dead — just expensive.

Jake Rutland, a convincing Louis Dobson, epitomizes the greedy and villainous opportunist. Jake’s Place devolves into Jake’s Palace of Pleasure with its roulette wheel and imported dancing floozies to show off their saucy bosoms and ruffled rumps. 

The crowd-pleasing Rodney Hicks delights as H. Ford, an ex-slave with many talents, who hopes to buy freedom for Wesley, a humble Kyle Robert Carter, forced West by his ruthless master.

Some of the production elements can’t help but remind you of other musicals, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” The Unsinkable Molly Brown” and even “Stomp.”

No one can doubt director David Armstrong’s love for musical theater. For aficionadas, the production evokes nostalgia for a bygone era of Broadway musicals.

It’s a pleasant evening of musical theater, but less compelling than Lerner and Lowe collaborations on “My Fair Lady,” “Camelot” and “Gigi.” The production is spotty. Some parts are pure gold; while others seem like canned nuggets one moment and at other times, unconvincing anachronisms.

The 5th Avenue has fostered a reputation as breeding place for new musicals. But if this reinvention of “Paint Your Wagon” has Broadway aspirations, nostalgia might not be enough.

As for Seattle productions making Broadway bows, “Come From Away,” co-produced by Seattle Repertory Theatre and La Jolla Playhouse, may have a better chance, in the wake of “Hamilton’s” dazzling triumph.


“Paint Your Wagon” runs through June 25 at the 5th Avenue Theatre. For more information, or to purchase tickets, call (206) 625-1900 or