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First Nighter: "Paint Your Wagon" Revival Paints Town Red-Hot

03/19/2015 03:17 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2015

Although reviews are expected to be as objective as possible in a somewhat paradoxically subjective way, don't wait for the following assessment of Paint Your Wagon, playing this weekend in the New York City Center Encores! series, to stick to that demand.

The reason for the, uh, lapse? The Alan Jay Lerner-Frederick Loewe musical was the second production I saw on Broadway. The first, caught the night before, was South Pacific. Some weekend, no? With those two as an introduction to The Great White Way--an emphasis on the "Great"--I thought that's what my New York City theatergoing was going to be from then on. Is it any wonder that I've often joked it's been downhill ever since?

Not exactly, of course, but nevertheless I have a soft spot in my heart for Paint Your Wagon, because of its thrilling score. That's what got to me at the time, as well as Agnes de Mille's choreography. (As equally thrilling as South Pacific was, if not more so, there wasn't much dancing in it at a time when de Mille, who'd built her reputation thanks to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, was the town's leading dance maker.)

At the age I was when taking in these two enterprises I certainly hadn't honed my critical faculties enough to notice that the Paint Your Wagon script was on the thin side at depicting the rise and fall of a California town during the dream-filled, dream-quashing Gold Rush. I was sufficiently carried along as grizzled prospector (James Barton then, Keith Carradine now) went about bringing up his 16-year-old daughter Jennifer (Olga San Juan then, Alexandra Socha now), the only girl in a growing town of 400 men, among them the Mexican outsider Julio Valveras (Tony Bavaar then, Justin Guarini now).

Before I go any farther in unadulterated praise of the Encores! revival (the first since the 289-performances, 1951-52 run). I need to say that if people have any memory of Paint Your Wagon at all, they focus on the execrable 1969 movie in which the three non-singers Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood and Jean Seberg (dubbed by Anita Gordon) required Lerner to drop much of the score, collaborate on a severely altered libretto with Paddy Chayevsky(!) and add music by Andre Previn. Forget that fiasco entirely. If you don't, you're cheating yourself out of something revelatory.

Instead take under advisement that this look back at a musical is a chance to hear a large cast chosen for outstanding voices sing full out a sometimes lilting, sometimes muscular, sometimes spirited score as conducted energetically Rob Berman in front of a 31-piece orchestra.

When Paint Your Wagon was first done and record companies still actively scoured upcoming scores for chart-topping possibilities, the ones selected were "I Talk to the Trees" and "They Call the Wind Maria." In the tuner where they couldn't be more different in tone, the latter follows the former within minutes--and they're delivered now with heart-stopping force by, respectively, Guarini and then Nathaniel Hackmann and chorus of 16--count 'em, I did, 16--robust men.

And those two songs are only a small part of a long list, delivered one quickly after another and not a clinker among them. Note well that Paint Your Wagon received no prizes for its score then, and consider that if the musical opened this season, it would undoubtedly win every award in sight. Just think about that for a minute and what it says on how the attitude towards the songwriting craft applied to musicals has changed in 60 years.

With this Paint Your Wagon incarnation, very little about director Marc Bruni's treatment isn't right up at the top of the Encores! highest standards. Keith Carradine, fully bearded, is ideal casting for Ben Rumson. When he wrote "I'm Easy" for himself to win an Oscar after crooning it in Nashville, he summed up his abiding gift: making it all look easy.

The hot stage news here--never diminishing Carradine's contributions--are Socha and Guarini. She's a small keg of dynamite who can belt to a point far across the street, then modulate confidentially and all the while act the tomboy maturing into womanhood. He has the sort of tender voice that gets people saying things like, "He sends me." That's if people these days continue saying things like that.

Others standing out in a crowd of stand-outs include Jenni Barber, a bundle of talent as a dissatisfied Mormon wife eager to be auctioned off to a high bidder in one plot development and subsequently is ready to run off with a third man in a further plot development. Robert Creighton, an Encores! staple for good reason, has fun with determined literal golddigger Mike Mooney. (FYI: Creighton has written himself Cagney, which shows up soon at the York Theatre and should probably be checked out.)

Although I know de Mille choreographed the 1951 version, I hardly remember it dance for dance, step for step. So I can't comment on whether Denis Jones keeps track of whatever is recorded or recalled of her work. I can say he's done well with several numbers in which the men show their prowess and the dance hall girls, arriving in act two, throw a mean can-can. Indeed, when the men join the women for the can-can, Jones turns that into something suddenly and surprisingly rousing. He also does nicely by a pas de deux Kevin Munhall and Darien Crago execute during a musical break in the plaintive "Another Autumn."

Whenever Encores! pops something up as well done as this Paint Your Wagon, conversation can start about the advisability of a Broadways transfer. My guess is that the misguided perception of that Joshua Logan directed 1969 flop would discourage ticket buyers from rushing the box office--if they even know the movie.

Worse, I'd even worry that the immense pleasures offered here in what was, I admit it, a second-drawer enterprise from the men who'd conjure My Fair Lady five years later--wouldn't be of much interest to a contemporary audience looking for entirely different elements in musicals. Perhaps something has been gained, but without a doubt some gold in them thar musical hills has also been lost.