Theater Review: At Encores!, Paint Your Wagon Is Way Better Than It Oughta Be

Photo: Joan Marcus

The ick factor is high in Lerner and Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon, the second of this season’s three Encores! presentations. I’m referring to the story, a mortifying one even by the standards of 1951 Broadway. Set in a California gold rush town in 1853, it was apparently intended to honor the American spirit of optimism in the face of privation, as evidenced by the hardscrabble and nomadic lives of the miners and their hangers-on. What it’s actually about, though, is the problem of sex when there are 400-some lonely men in town and only one woman. Not even one woman: one 16-year-old tomboy, the daughter of the widowed mayor; she sings perhaps the most awkward establishing song ever devised, in which she wonders why everyone keeps staring at her ass. Luckily, she’s taken out of commission, sex-wise, after she falls in love with a handsome young miner who is an outcast Mexican and thus courtly instead of lascivious. But not to worry, gents, there soon arrive a Mormon with two wives (one of whom he’s willing to sell to the highest bidder) and a troupe of “French” dancing girls, available for rental. (They get a fabulous Agnes de Mille–style Dance of the Incoming Harlots.) Though the book, which Lerner took pains to promote as a complete original, touches briefly on other issues — the smallness of man in the vastness of nature, for one — it keeps homing back to its smarmy idée fixe. Over and over, it posits women as a scarce natural resource, not unlike gold, to be claimed, controlled, and commodified. This is an anxiety that ties Paint Your Wagon to other mid-century demimonde musicals like Irma La Douce, New Girl in Town, and latterly Sweet Charity. It’s perhaps not too much of a reach to say that the anxiety also reflects Lerner’s own; he was married eight* times.

And yet, Paint Your Wagon turns out to make one of the best Encores! offerings to date. That Lerner's book is so awful (and yet, as newly adapted by Marc Acito, not as awful as it was originally) is neither here nor there; the Encores! mission all but ensures that most of what it produces will not stand up as dramatic literature. (If it did, it wouldn’t need Encores!) But the score, and the care taken with it, are exemplary. The first, at least, is not a given; indeed, Lerner and Loewe would seem to be a hopeless mismatch for this material. But though of Viennese extraction, and phenomenally cultured, Loewe spent time cowpunching and even gold mining after his family emigrated from Berlin in the 1920s; in any case, he got the sound of the American west into his ears. How it emerges in his music for Paint Your Wagon is a constant delight and surprise, part wagon train, part Merry Widow. The score produced at least three hits: “(I Was Born Under a) Wand’rin’ Star,” for the widowed mayor; “I Talk to the Trees,” for the courtly Mexican; and, most gloriously, “They Call the Wind Maria,” a churning, emotional aria for a subsidiary character and the ensemble. Here, Loewe lifts the plot exigency of their being all men to the level of aesthetic virtue: Rarely has the American musical produced such virile music, so deeply understanding of the lower voice and its capabilities. It’s also sung gorgeously by Nathaniel Hackmann — a reincarnated John Raitt — and the chorus. (Throughout, the original vocal and dance arrangements are superb.) Likewise, Justin Guarini, as the Mexican, makes the most of his numbers, and Keith Carradine, looking and sounding a lot like Willie Nelson, is spot-on as the rumpled mayor.

It’s a sign of the care Encores! has taken with Paint Your Wagon that the dud numbers, and there are several, are nevertheless well sung and staged. (The direction is by Marc Bruni.) And Denis Jones’ choreography, including a terrific can-can led by Jenny Laroche, who’s a Rockette, is unusually strong throughout. But what’s finally so successful about this production is the gentle way it forces you to confront the contradictions of the material and era it represents. Paint Your Wagon opened four years after Lerner and Loewe’s breakthrough, Brigadoon; five years later came My Fair Lady. Sexism or no, you don’t throw away the opportunity to experience how two Broadway greats learned to tell stories in music that they did not yet know how to tell in words.

Paint Your Wagon is at City Center through March 22.

*This sentence has been corrected.