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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Paint Your Wagon’

CEK WAGON 04

The famous Broadway classic “They Call the Wind Maria” —  which is pronounced “Mar-eye-ah,” for all you “Paint Your Wagon” neophytes out there — is a beautiful song. Tyler Branco, who starts off the song in the nicely staged Good Company Players revival at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, offers a sweet and moving interpretation.

But I surprised myself by falling for a different tune entirely, one that hasn’t quite stood the test of time as well as a song about the wind. It’s a throwaway comic ditty titled “In Between.” The song is performed by the amiable Greg Ruud, portraying the show’s central character, Ben, a hardscrabble gold prospector always hoping for the next big strike. He’s wooing a woman named Elizabeth (a sharply played Paige Parker), an unlikely candidate for betrothal considering she’s already married to someone else.  But that isn’t as big a complication as you’d think. Elizabeth is, you see, the second wife of a Mormon gentleman who moves to a Gold Rush town in which men outnumber women 400 to one. So it makes perfect sense for her practical-minded husband to auction her off — yes, sell her, as in some other lucky chap buying a wife — to the highest bidder.

And thus we’re treated to “In Between,” an ode to mediocrity sung with a twinkle by Ben, who assures Elizabeth that he might not be the bravest or richest guy in the world, but neither is he the poorest or biggest coward. The song is one of the highlights of the show, an easygoing and sparkling nod to our hard-working, frontier-savvy forebears who flocked to California for gold. “Paint Your Wagon” isn’t about big, mythic heroes. Instead it’s about the colorful “average folks” who settled these parts in a time when sleeping inside was a luxury.

As you probably already have gathered from the wife-selling plot thread, the musical — best known for its book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe — hasn’t aged all that well. (It’s best to keep muttering to yourself, “Remember, this was written in 1951,” throughout.) Though some have tried to tweak the book in recent years to make it less dated, director Dan Pessano opted for the original version, and it’s a wise call. The good thing about the show’s eye-rolling political incorrectness is that it’s so flagrant. It can only be played for laughs.

We meet Ben and his 18-year-old daughter, Jennifer (Alyssa Gaynor in a strongly acted performance that is a little weaker on vocals), as the show opens with them holding a funeral service for a fellow prospector. Ben turns the eulogy into a heaven-sent plea for his luck to change — and, sure enough, among the dirt broken for the grave, Jennifer finds a big gold nugget.

A big chunk of the first part of the show deals with Gold Rush growing pains. As Ben’s self-named town of Rumson booms with eager prospectors, many of them start eyeing Jennifer, the only woman. They gather themselves together, march to Ben and demand he send her off to college back East, because no women at all is better than one tantalizingly close. (Remember: 1951. 1951. Keep repeating it.)

But Jennifer, oblivious to the men’s desires, falls for an outsider: the suave Julio (Ryan Torres). While you might expect a dramatic examination of interracial romance and discrimination against Mexican citizens living in California, “Paint Your Wagon” doesn’t dive into anything too deeply. The more serious themes are handled just about as lightly as the obviously silly ones.

This is the fourth time in four decades that GCP has staged “Paint Your Wagon,” and it has most of the creative details down, from David Pierce’s Western-themed set to Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed’s period costumes. (I love all those round miner hats.) The opening night performance had more glitches than you’d expect in terms of lights; the design is by Pessano and Evan Commins.

Ruud is wonderful as Ben, bringing a dreamy and low-key authority to the role. (He gets to sing the charming song “Wand’rin Star.”) While I think he could add even more speak-singing moments to his songs rather than try to hold onto notes that are a little out of his range, his vocals don’t detract from his engaging characterization.

CEK WAGON - My Capture

The other standout is Torres as Julio, the love interest. This young actor has now greatly impressed me in three roles. After his turns as an old man in the Children’s Musical Theaterworks production of “Jekyll & Hyde” and an electrocuted presidential assassin in Fresno State’s production of “Assassins,” Torres demonstrates in ‘Paint Your Wagon” that he can play a charismatic leading man. His Julio is gentle but intense, and his character’s chemistry with Gaynor’s Jennifer sweet and believable. I did find it difficult to hear Torres at points on opening night — his sound level in parts of his “I Talk to the Trees” was too soft especially — but the clarity and tone of his vocals were excellent.

Also very fine were Chris Hoffman as the Mormon husband, Christy Hathaway as his favored wife, Sarah, and Parker as Elizabeth in the hymnlike reprise of “I’m On My Way,” along with some sharply comic moments among the unlikely trio.

I’d be remiss not mentioning the most energetic cast member: Marc Gonzalez as Jake, who arranges for a group of dance-hall women to visit town. When he’s leading the dancing in Steve Souza’s boot-stomping choreography in such tunes as “Hand Me Down That Can o’Beans,” Gonzalez doesn’t quite nail the vocals but more than makes up for it with his yee-haw athleticism.

Is “Paint Your Wagon” a show I’d see again? Nah. I think its nostalgic mix of music and fond Gold Rush-era stereotypes, along with all that politically incorrect humor, would soon wear thin. But there are moments when all the rustiness is put beyond us and we achieve a beautiful kind of ageless clarity. After the prospectors came the farmers, and there’s a touching sense of transition in the show as we watch some of those who pined for gold settle down for a different kind of bounty from the earth: a great, green, growing payoff that continues to this day.

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Photos: Greg Ruud, top; Ryan Torres and Alyssa Gaynor, bottom. By Craig Kohlruss, The Fresno Bee

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