The Muny presents the premier production of Lerner and Loewe’s tribute to the California Gold Rush with a new book that reframes the original story with a perspective contemporary audiences can better appreciate. A spirited cast embraces the challenge of reinterpretation as well as the soaring melodies of the original songs, though they, too, have been updated with new orchestrations and choreography. The result is at times surprising and always entertaining, even though there are still uncomfortable moments.

The story focuses on the men who headed west to make their fortune after gold was discovered in California. These men came from all parts of the world, bringing long held prejudice and suspicion with them. In the new version, fur trapper Ben Rumson arrives in a booming new town, more like a camp really, a the same time as an influx of prospectors, each hoping to strike it rich. One of the prospectors brings his wife along with him, and she’s the recipient of constant physical and verbal abuse from her husband. Another, the son of a southern plantation owner, brings along his half brother, who is also his slave back home. Add in immigrants with foreign accents, including two Chinese brothers, a Hispanic man who lost his family and land to violence and the influx of prospectors, and a free black man, and the show becomes more honestly drawn, and full of potential conflict.

“Paint Your Wagon” photos by Philip Hamer

Matt Bogart is charismatic and appealing in the role of the widower and fur trapper Ben Rumson. He’s paired with Mamie Parris as the hard working, strong willed Cayla Woodling, a down to earth woman with a full, rich voice that matches her character’s personality. Michael James Reed is purposefully unlikeable as her abusive husband Craig Woodling and Preston Truman Boyd matches his unpleasantness as the instigating, racist Jake. Allan K. Washington is thoroughly compelling and perhaps the most levelheaded man in town as Jake’s half brother Wesley, a man with many talents who longs for freedom. He makes a friend in H. Ford, played with sensitivity and honest errors by Rodney Hicks. Wesley has some of the best lines in the new book and calls out injustice wherever he sees it, even when it appears in the free black man H. Ford. 

Omar Lopez-Cepero and Maya Keleher are charming as Armando and Jennifer Rumson, and though they typically fall in love at first sight, believable chemistry and conflict with Jennifer’s father Ben ensure the audience roots for their love to triumph. Bobby Conte Thornton, as William, Raymond J. Lee as younger brother Guang Li, and Austin Ku, as his big brother Ming Li, standout among the supporting characters in a well-motivated, well-harmonized ensemble.

Bogart and Parris appealing voices blend together well and are also capable of handling their many solos and duets, and Parris clear, distinct notes are highlights of the many ensemble numbers. “Wand’rin Star’” starts the show with a laid back and easy twang, but that languid approach quickly changes with “No Name City,” a song that entertains visually as well as musically, and highlights solid choreography by director Josh Rhodes, who also keeps the story moving at a quick, intensifying pace. “How Can I Wait” is a memorable tune that’s filled with longing and anticipation, while “Another Autumn,” “Carino Mio” and “They Call the Wind Maria” are notable and persuasively moving.

Scenic designer Michael Schweikardt, video designer Caite Hevner and lighting designer John Lasiter create a gorgeous backdrop for the action that makes full use of the Muny’s capabilities. The video projections are evocative of the expansive west and the lifts and turntable effectively take us through the mining camp’s transformation to a growing and then fading town without slowing the pace of the show, while we almost feel each sunrise and sunset.

There have been relatively few productions of Lerner and Loewe’s “Paint Your Wagon,” since its debut in 1951, with good reason. The original script proved problematic and messy, filled with derogatory stereotypes and dismissive of both women and race. Writer Jon Marans began working on the new book five years ago by addressing the racial and gender inequities of the original head on. There are still uncomfortable moments in the story, but this new version, re-imagined for a contemporary audience, does an admirable job of addressing these scenes with a more honest and hopeful approach. Acknowledging rampant racism and sexism, the script reminds audiences that there have always been people who believed in equality, even when they may falter on a personal level.

At The Muny through August 2. For more information call (314) 361-1900 or visit www.muny.org.

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