The Boulder Dinner Theatre's version of Paint Your Wagon makes for an enjoyable evening, although I suspect it has very little to do with Lerner and Loewe's original musical. This production is primarily a vehicle for A.K. Klimpke, a onetime favorite of melodrama audiences at the Heritage Square Music Hall. Playing Ben Rumson, a miner who strikes gold and then watches as a prosperous town grows up on the site of the strike and eventually collapses, he pretty much controls the evening -- from the birthday announcements before the show to the celebratory leaping and singing of the final number.
This means that the script -- and I've no idea how strong or weak it was in the first place --becomes no more than a skeletal structure for all kinds of anachronistic references, improvisations and other shenanigans. In a way, that's a shame, because I think Paint Your Wagon may have something interesting to say about the Wild West. A program note tells us, for example, that a speech in which a man is sentenced to death on the sketchiest of evidence comes verbatim from nineteenth-century records (it's played for broad comedy here). You sense that Lerner and Loewe also wanted to express the cycles from hope to despair and back again suffered by the miners, as well as their loneliness and the difficulties of making a life in a raw and uncharted place. There's an interracial love affair between Rumson's daughter Jennifer and the loner Julio Valveras (Michael D. Chavez), which must have been extremely daring in 1951 when the show was first produced, and it's expressed in wistfully tender song.
The marriage of melodrama and musical comedy may not be entirely successful, but Klimpke is a terrific performer. He holds audience attention effortlessly; he's very funny, and his comic timing is masterful: He can sustain a double take or an accusatory glare longer than you'd ever imagined possible. So even as part of you is wishing you could push him aside for a fuller view of the terrain, the rest of you is laughing itself silly.
From the melodic "I Talk to the Trees" to the infectious, rhythmic optimism of "I'm on My Way," Paint Your Wagon is full of great music -- which is not surprising, since the team also gave us Brigadoon, My Fair Lady (which, of course, also had a knockout script, courtesy of George Bernard Shaw), Gigi and Camelot. Klimpke, whose vocal talents don't match his comedic ones -- his voice is more powerful than pleasing -- unfortunately gets to sing one of the best songs of the evening, "They Call the Wind Maria," and while he doesn't massacre it, he doesn't do it justice, either.
Luckily, there are other voices on hand to make up for the deficiency. Eugene Ebner, as Mormon Jacob Woodling, has a fine one; the trio he sings with Alicia King Dunfee and Mary McGroary, who play his wives, is a high point. Michael D. Chavez does a nice job with "I Talk to the Trees," though he seems a little awkward in the role of romantic lead, and Annaleigh Swanson answers him sweetly as Jennifer. Swanson has an engaging grin and a lot of energy. For a while, I found the way she speaks grating -- although it was clearly intended as part of her characterization -- but her singing voice soars gracefully into the upper registers. In a generally strong and appealing chorus, Brian Mallgrave distinguishes himself with his elastic capering.
Paint Your Wagon may not be Pygmalion, but you'll find some entertaining nuggets in this production.
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