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BWW Reviews: Encores!'s PAINT YOUR WAGON a Big Robust Treat

You wouldn't peg a Viennese composer schooled in operetta and a Manhattan-born bookwriter/lyricist who got his dramatic feet wet contributing to Harvard's Hasty Pudding Shows as an obvious team to capture the big robust spirit of the American west during the Gold Rush era, but Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner's Paint Your Wagon is a hearty piece of musical comedy Americana.

Jenni Barber and Keith Carradine (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Sandwiched between the team's first big hit, Brigadoon, and their masterpiece, My Fair Lady, this 1951 Broadway entry isn't exactly a model of musical theatre structure, but it's never lacking for good humor and lovely melodies.

A moderate hit, not quite reaching 300 performances in its initial run, the show's reputation may have been damaged a bit by the disappointing 1969 film version (with a revised plot and Clint Eastwood singing the ballads), but classic songs like "I Talk To The Trees" and "They Call The Wind Maria" have won many admirers for its rich and melodic score.

A perfect choice for the full-orchestra treatment by City Center Encores!, Ted Royal's original orchestrations shine with golden age boisterousness as conductor Rob Berman leads his 31 players. Director Marc Bruni's concert production is full of fine traditional Broadway vitality.

Keith Carradine stars as the prospector Ben Rumson, whose accidental discovery of gold triggers a rush of treasure-seekers to the newly formed town of Rumson, California. Though playing a traditional, hard-drinking old geezer type, Carradine offers warmth and authenticity with his vocals.

As Rumson's male population surpasses 400, Ben's 16-year-old daughter Jennifer remains the only female. There's no suggestion that Jennifer is in any danger of molestation, but the fellas do have trouble keeping their minds on their work when she's around and the confused teen doesn't understand why nobody in town will even talk to her.

Also ostracized by everyone else is Julio, a Mexican prospector who became a foreigner in his own homeland after California was ceded to the United States. He and Jennifer bond over their willingness to talk with each other. As their friendship grows romantic, Ben insists on using his newfound wealth to send his daughter to a good school in Boston and Jennifer asks Julio to wait for her.

Alexandra Socha and Justin Guarini (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Alexandra Socha and Justin Guarini are well matched as the hesitant pair. She's a terrific belter with a comical innocence and his soft tenor sounds lovely during romantic ballads.

But their story takes up comparatively little time, so the two acts are filled with lots of small subplots surrounding the growth of the town. Rumson's female population triples when a Mormon with two wives comes to town. One of them, Elizabeth (brash and funny Jenni Barber), is tired of playing second fiddle and agrees to be auctioned off as a bride to the highest bidder.

More women arrive when a saloon opens up featuring fandango ladies. This is when Denis Jones' choreography shifts into high gear with a joyous and acrobatic can-can.

Nathaniel Hackmann displays a thrillingly masculine baritone playing a character whose sole purpose is to lead the male chorus in "They Call The Wind Maria," the score's best song and one that has nothing to do with much of anything going on. As previously stated, Paint Your Wagon isn't exactly a model of musical theatre structure, but the terrific Encores! mounting is a wonderful night out.

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