'Paint Your Wagon' reboots a not-so-well-known classic

Tracy Martin

Tracy Martin

Reboots are filling cinemas, so it was inevitable that Broadway would catch the trend. The production of Lerner and Loewe's Paint Your Wagon, now onstage at the Ordway, features a musical that's been stripped to its rims and rebuilt with new characters, a new plot, and even new musical arrangements.

Paint Your Wagon

Ordway Center for the Performing Arts

What's that? You've never seen the original Paint Your Wagon? Exactly. In a program note, the Ordway's producing artistic director James A. Rocco writes that the 1951 show "never reached the level of notoriety enjoyed by other Lerner and Loewe musicals like My Fair Lady and Camelot." If Paint Your Wagon was notorious for anything, it was being for long, boring, and kind of racist.

The new version, with a book by Jon Marans replacing much of Lerner's original (which was hardly a sacred text, already having been the subject of multiple rewrites over the years), widens the story's focus: Instead of being about a bunch of white dudes and one Mexican dude, the show is now about a bunch of white dudes, one Mexican dude, a couple of black dudes, some Chinese dudes, Irish dudes (who are white, but stigmatized for their immigrant status), and a Mormon family. Before long, they're all literally dancing in a kickline together.

While the almost manic inclusivity feels forced and idealistic, Marans meets the fundamental goal of helping us get from one great song to another without snoozing or cringing. The music is so much better than what you get in the average new musical that comes rumbling through town on an 18-wheeler that the impulse to save Paint Your Wagon from itself becomes understandable.

Those who have seen one of the earlier versions of the musical will recognize certain names and situations, but in sometimes radically different contexts. This Wagon has cutthroat entrepreneur Jake (Jared Michael Brown) establishing a boomtown in gold-rush California, with politician-turned-mountain-man-turned-politician Ben (Robert Cuccioli, towering and dignified) ultimately serving as mayor and sheriff.

The residents of the town, which goes by four different names over the course of the show, include Armando (Justin Gregory Lopez), a young Mexican man who's lost his family and been taken in by Ben; Jake's slave Wesley (Kyle Robert Carter); H. Ford (the sprightly Rhett George), a free black man who joins with Wesley to start a hat-crafting business; a pair of Chinese brothers (Mikko Juan and Steven Eng) whose bonds are frayed when one embraces frontier culture more than the other; a traveling Mormon (Allen Fitzpatrick) who loses one of his two wives (Ann Michels) to Ben; and Irishman William (Erik Ankrim), who's self-destructively dissolute. (Come on, you didn't expect every stereotype to be left behind, did you?)

Directed by David Armstrong, the two-act epic unfolds on an earth-toned set by Jason Sherwood, who uses the giant-turntable trick to good effect, for example in the scene where Ben and his new wife Cayla discover the joys of middle-aged sex on one side of a fabric wall while (rotate, please) their horny neighbors lounge on the other side.

Paint Your Wagon purists who haven't already stopped reading should know that the show's reshuffled songs — accompanied by a sort of Americana orchestra (lots of fiddling and guitar-plucking) — take on new significance, with meanings and dynamics altered to fit the new story.

"They Call the Wind Maria," for example, goes from a first-act meditation on the loneliness of the long-distance pioneer to a surging climactic anthem reflecting Ben's emotional isolation. "I Talk to the Trees" becomes a flirtatious duet between Ben's daughter Jennifer (Kristen deLohr Helland) and Armando (replacing the original show's "Julio"), with a new Mexican-influenced arrangement adding lightness and lilt to the operatic original.

The new Wagon's Ordway run is only the second stop for this new "revisal," which debuted in June at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre. There are some dramaturgical kinks that could still be worked out — the second act feels disconnected from the first, and Ben's friendship with Armando is underdeveloped given its pivotal significance — but the show's creators have succeeded in staging a solid entertainment that could bring these sublime songs to new ears.

If the show hits its notes of peace, love, and understanding a little too stridently...well, maybe, especially in this particular year, that's not such a terrible thing.