Jason Sherwood's gorgeous set for 5th Avenue Theatre's "reinvented" production of Paint Your Wagon features a giant celestial orb swinging low and slow over gold-rich ground in California. When fully revealed, the sun/moon covers three-fourths of the backdrop. Depending on the lights, the orb resembles a gold coin and a cross section of a tree. Was it a symbol for the eternal conflict between greed and natural resources? An embodiment of the idea that the profit motive currently destroying the natural world originates from the natural world itself? Just a cool and engrossing bit of stagecraft whose circular shape mirrors the rotating stage in a way that reminds you of the interconnected AND cyclical nature of all things, which come back the same but different, including events in human history, which is fitting considering the fact that the musical is a remount? Was I just hallucinating due to a mild case of heatstroke spurred by the lack of adequate AC at the 5th Avenue? All of the above, but probably mostly that last one? Yes.
In the old Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe version of Paint Your Wagon, a bunch of white guys head west, start up a boomtown once they discover gold in a grave they dug for one of their own, and force a stereotypically drawn Mexican character named Julio Valveras to live outside the town.
In this new version, the 5th Avenue Theatre commissioned Jon Marans to write a completely new book. Working closely with director David Armstrong and the rest of the creative team, Marans wrote a version that contains exactly zero of the same phrases from Lerner's book but retains all of the rollicking and lonesome western-inspired tunes, including classics like "They Call the Wind Maria" and "Wand'rin' Star." Now the story focuses on racial, gender, and economic tensions that develop between the characters on their hunt for goooooooooooold.
The updated book shows Mormon sister-wives fighting back against domestic abuse, two Chinese brothers arguing about the risks and benefits of assimilation, a married Irish man struggling with addiction to gambling and booze, a formerly wealthy Mexican rancher stumbling upon love, a freed black man working to free an enslaved black man from the clutches of the town's capitalist overlord, and a reluctant white savior figure arbitrating racial conflict and trying to keep the peace in a town composed primarily of sex-starved mens while he attempts to recover from the loss of his wife.
Marans's significant revision makes both regressive and progressive gestures. The new focus on racism, sexism, and economic inequality on the frontier suggests that none of the problems we endure today are new. And having a more diverse cast of American characters enriches what might have been just a simple cautionary tale about American greed.
And yet. There's a moment in the show when H. Ford (Rodney Hicks), the free black character, demands justice after a white character shoots a Chinese character during a fight. Ford and a small group of men want to hang the white man. We never see the hanging, but, after the group chases the white man offstage, we never see the white guy again, either. We see a Chinese man shot. Why not a white man hanged?
I don't want to spoil too much, but the musical ends with a vision of a future that hasn't come to pass for the very reasons that would have led Mansan et al. to rewrite the book, namely that the above-mentioned inequities seem woven into the fabric of the American dream.
Performers who killed it include Justin Gregory Lopez, who plays Armando. His voice was liquid gold, and his duets with Kirsten deLohr Helland created some of the most earnest moments in the show. Robert Cuccioli played Ben Rumson like a dad, and you love him for it. Kendra Kassebaum, who played Rumson's wife, Cayla Woodling, was funny, punchy, and strong. As for the show itself: It's a valiant effort, one that projects a dream that seems so far away, especially in an election season when yuge numbers of Americans support an openly racist, gold-obsessed, barking jar of ass-meat.