Sunday, March 22, 2015

Paint Your Wagon

Alexandra Socha and Keith Carradine
Photo: Joan Marcus
One of the many worthy aspects of City Center's Encores is that it often provides a venue for musicals that would otherwise go unrevived. Some of my personal favorite Encores productions--Juno, Pardon My English, Fanny, Pipe Dream, Of Thee I Sing!--are, for one reason or another, not likely candidates for a commercial Broadway production any time soon. Yet this invaluable concert series provides the opportunity to hear these scores sumptuously performed by some of the best singers in New York, backed by a full orchestra. For a musical theatre lover, this is as close to heaven as it gets.

Lerner and Loewe's 1951 musical Paint Your Wagon, which concludes its Encores run with two performances today, fits squarely in this category. (Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre is actually planning to mount a full production of the musical in 2016, albeit with an entirely rewritten book). The story itself is almost beside the point, and, as is the case with most Encores concerts, the book has been pared down to the absolute essentials. Ben Rumson (Keith Carradine), a widowed prospector, strikes gold in California; soon enough, he's got a town named after him, with men flocking from all over the country looking to similarly strike it rich. Ben's teenage daughter, Jennifer (Alexandra Socha), is the only girl in town--it soon becomes clear that the love-starved miners are taking an interest in her. Ben wants to send her to a finishing school in Boston, but Jennifer has set her eye on Julio (Justin Guarini), a soulful Mexican miner who seems as likely to quote poetry as pan for gold.

The show itself might not be much, but the score is resplendent, and it's getting a first-rate treatment. Despite being saddled with some truly unfortunate fake facial hair, Carradine is wonderful as Rumson. His light baritone is less secure than it was twenty-five years ago, when he headlined The Will Rogers Follies, but he makes up for any vocal shakiness by singing with great refinement. He beautifully handles Ben's two big numbers, the hauntingly lovely "I Still See Elisa" (an ode to his late wife) and the folksy "Wand'rin Star."

Socha is perfectly cast. She deftly conveys Jennifer's girlishness and her blossoming womanhood. She's equally adept in comic numbers like "What's Going On Here?," where she puzzles as to why the miners are so fascinated by her every move, and romantic songs like "All For Him," about her devotion to her love. Guarini is an ideal match. Although his accent is a bit shaky, he wraps his elegant tenor around Julio's beautiful music and all is forgiven.

The supporting cast--which includes Jenni Barber, Robert Creighton, and William Youmans--is uniformly excellent. As the miner Steve, Nathaniel Hackmann leads a rousing rendition of what's perhaps the musical's best-known song, "They Call the Wind Maria." It was no accident that he received some of the loudest applause at the curtain call. He's on the fast track to stardom.

Under the baton of Rob Berman, the Encores orchestra is lush and lovely. This is exactly the kind of show Encores should be doing. If I may say, they've struck musical theatre gold. And for those who won't be able to make it to City Center to catch the final performances, fret not: It was announced yesterday that a cast recording will be made.

[Front balcony. $30 + an insane amount of fees, but worth every cent.]

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