By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Eureka! A robust makeover to an unremarkable ‘50s era musical “Paint Your
Wagon” has hit pay dirt on the Muny stage.

Those behind the new edition have dreamed as big as the
characters in this fresh look at the American identity, those yearning for a
better life who came over land and by sea, as many as 300,000 during the
rough-and-tumble California Gold Rush.

It’s one of our nation’s most significant tipping points (1848-1855).
The musical, set in a mining camp in 1853, has everything we associate with
those rugged settlers – the wild untamed west, the wide-open spaces and the
pioneer spirit, only this version sharpens the American melting pot feel.

Despite its Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe pedigree,
the 1951 homage to the Old West had fallen out of favor – not that it ever was
a hot property, for it had only run on Broadway for 289 performances. And then,
there was the much-maligned 1969 movie starring those songbirds Lee Marvin and
Clint Eastwood (27 percent on Rotten Tomatoes!).

The latest incarnation, developed by the Frederick Loewe
Foundation and playwright Jon Marans, has new orchestrations, vocal
arrangements, dance and characters – and presents the reimagined story through
a different lens. You won’t be able to forget this one, an unvarnished snapshot
that touches on bigotry and prejudices as fortune seekers headed West.

Photo by Phillip HamerMarans has focused on historical accuracy and made deep
incisions so that it’s not merely unsatisfying filler between the signature
songs “They Call the Wind Maria,” “I Talk to the Trees” and “Wand’rin’ Star,”
but a journey about lives and loves with real emotional heft.

Those compelling changes are as much a surprise as Josh
Rhodes’ inspired direction and innovative choreography, assisted by Lee
Wilkins, because they have rescued an otherwise lightweight show and connected
with a modern audience.

Marans wrote the 1996 Pulitzer Prize-nominated play “Old
Wicked Songs,” a character study about a Holocaust survivor and his burnt-out
pupil. A New Jewish Theatre production won Best Drama at the St. Louis Theater
Circle Awards in 2017.

The story still has brawny prospector Ben Rumson (Matt Bogart) as the strong center, the enterprising leader among the rag-tag settlers of “No Name City,” but in the first act, the only female is not his daughter, as the earlier incarnations, but his lovable new wife, Cayla (Mamie Parris).

He ‘wins’ her in a bidding contest, like a commodity, for
she has been abused by her despicable lout of a husband (Michael James Reed,
yelling at 11). Well, that was awkward. Parris, so winning as Irene in the 2014
“Hello, Dolly!,” conveys genuine warmth and caring, and her lilting voice is
lovely.

Mamie Parris and Matt Bogart. Photo by Phillip HamerBogart and Parris have combustible chemistry, and their harmonies mesh beautifully. While Bogart didn’t seem to be as smooth as other performers on opening night, he delivered an electric “They Call the Wind Maria,” and his other numbers showcased his commanding baritone.

After striking it rich, sturdy Ben becomes the boomtown’s
chief developer. Now named Rumson City, the outpost becomes home to Rumson
Palace in the second act, a place for socializing and gambling that he
envisioned for everybody.

Michael Schweikardt’s scenic design is a distinct mix of awe-inspiring
panoramic exteriors and fresh-hewed lumber interiors. Lighting designer John
Lasiter makes the night sky glow while video design by Caite Hevner expanded picture
postcard vistas.

However, Ben’s one-world theory isn’t exactly practiced when his right-hand man Armando (Omar Lopez-Cepero), whose wealthy and cultured family lived in the Mexican territory of northern California,  takes a shine to Rumson’s feisty daughter, Jennifer (Maya Keleher), who has traveled from the East Coast to join her father.

Much to the horror of his college-educated daughter and wife,
Rumson will not accept the Armando-Jennifer union, therefore not practicing
what he preaches. His luster is dimmed, only to see him work through those
feelings.

Racism is rampant among the rowdy miners, who are frustrated
and fearful of the ‘foreigners.’ Two brothers from China, Ming Li (St. Louis
native Austin Ku) and Guang Li (Raymond J. Lee), once of royal lineage now just
wanting to survive; a down-on-his-luck Irish immigrant William (Bobby Conte
Thornton), who regrets leaving his family but is desperate to provide for them after
the Great Famine (aka Irish Potato Famine); two African-Americans, free man H.
Ford (Rodney Hicks) and slave Wesley (Allan K. Washington); and Europeans of
various nationalities all jostle for their piece of the pie.

Ku, Lee, Thornton, Hicks and Washington are outstanding talents who immersed themselves in these meatier roles. And the men revealed bold and controlled voices in such numbers as “How Can I Wait?” and “Four Hundred People Came to No Name City.”

Allan K. Washington and Rodney Hicks. Photo by Phillip HamerSome of the characters are contemptible, especially Preston
Truman Boyd as an intolerable loudmouth Jake, a Southerner who owns a tavern
and looks at all of life as transactional.

Sinai Tabak is conducting the Muny orchestra for the first
time, and the richly textured sound adds another layer of complexity to a testosterone-heavy
show. There is a harp among all the strings, and the sounds of country and bluegrass
impart an Americana homespun feel.

One is reminded how elegant and lyrical Lerner and Loewe
were, as this show was written in between the more successful “Brigadoon”
(1947) and “My Fair Lady” (1956). 

Photo by Phillip HamerThe dancing girls show up in the second act, in quite the
entrance – arriving by stagecoach, “There’s a Coach Comin’ In.” Two magnificent
Clydesdale horses pull them – and the audience went crazy.

Some of the lonely men lose their way and go a little batty,
and this 180-degree turn, while true to life, is disconcerting. Gold fever makes
some of the men envious, greedy and bitter. Things get ugly, reminding us that
while the high road is preferred, human nature suggests otherwise. This is harsh
and hard-hitting, recovering in a hail of hope. If you are expecting fluff,
this is not that kind of show, dancing girls aside.

Nevertheless, the performers are indeed the gold nuggets
enticing us to make the emotional investment. The vocal prowess on display is as
breathtaking as the scenery, so it’s unfortunate there was a myriad of uncharacteristic
sound issues Saturday – static, mics cutting out or not on for singers, and
rough patches. Sound design is by John Shivers and David Patridge.

“Paint Your Wagon” was one of those lackluster second-rate musicals whose contemporary overhaul is quite an accomplishment, and the Muny has polished it with tender loving care. You might as well forget any previous version.

A new world premiere production in Los Angeles, with a revised
libretto by David Rambo, ran from Nov. 23, 2004 to Jan. 9, 2005. Then a fall
2007 production by the Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake City, Utah had a
cast of nearly 30. An Encores! Staged concert production in New York City in
March 2015 starred Keith Carradine as Rumson and Justin Guarini as Julio.

There is no Julio here, replaced by Armando. It’s a stronger role, and Lopez-Cepero unleashes a glorious voice in his standout performance. His “Carino Mio” duet with Keleher is lush and romantic.

Photo by Phillip HamerHelping to shape the in-the-works musical is a natural fit
for the Muny, for it presented spirited reboots of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”
in 2017 and “The Wiz” last year. During the Mike Isaacson era, the emphasis on
imagination and the theme of home has been recurring elements. So, it’s no
surprise that the Mother Lode Muny is again a birthplace, producing in
association with On the Wagon Productions and Garmar Ventures.

By virtue of its American patchwork quilt make-up, “Paint Your Wagon” may remind people of “Oklahoma!” – especially that number pleading harmony, “The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends,” but I recalled “Fiddler on the Roof” instead, a proud community clinging to its customs but having to move forward at great sacrifice for survival. In the West, hardships knocked down many a soul, but hope springs eternal in “Paint Your Wagon,” and smartly addressing changing tides so dramatically will be able to resonate. You can hear America singing with its varied voices. The Muny presents “Paint Your Wagon” evenings at 8:15 p.m. July 27 – Aug. 2. For more information, visit www.muny.org.

Bobby Conte Thornton as William. Photo by Phillip Hamer

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone and Imelda Staunton. Their different portraits of the iconic Momma Rose character in “Gypsy” are among the most legendary in theater history. Now add Beth Leavel to that august list.
The Muny’s sixth production of the gutsy Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim classic hits the heights in so many ways, but first and foremost is Leavel’s knockout performance.
Most of the time, the ambitious Momma Rose is viewed as a heartless monster and played in that blustery, brassy Merman-style. Others have realized that Rose is a tough survivor. Either way, she is hard to warm up to, but at least Leavel makes you understand her.

Leavel is a Tony winner for “The Drowsy Chaperone,” veteran of 12 Broadway shows and Muny diva whose “Hello, Dolly!” in 2014 remains one of the outdoor stage’s finest shows. Tackling this titanic role was a challenge I was certain she could meet but was not prepared for the delicate balance she achieved.
Sure, hear her roar. A born belter who projects well, Leavel pretty much started at 11, and then dialed back to modulate this complex character.
Given that Rose was introduced in 1959, when theater was not a champion of woman empowerment, it’s interesting that book writer Arthur Laurents wrote such a complicated part. And now it’s on nearly every actress’s bucket list.
The show is loosely based on the 1957 memoir of Gypsy Rose Lee, a burlesque entertainer known internationally for her striptease artistry. She’s the Louise inspiration, and her sister, actress June Havoc, is Baby June.
Their mother pushed them into the vaudeville circuit in the 1920s, dreaming of showbiz success. June was the extroverted performer while Louise was shy and in the background. That changes during the show’s many conflicts.
This ultimate stage mother, fiercely driven and controlling, is twice-divorced and perpetually broke. Rose must be resourceful and rely on her wits in a world not used to strong independent women.
She is a bulldozer, but peerless director Rob Ruggiero’s emphasis is that she’s motivated out of desperation. Always thinking of where their next gig will be, and if they can grab the spotlight, Rose is all about what’s next – for her and those she loves.
Because their mother is living through her children’s lives, Baby June and Louise will suffer the consequences from her abrasive efforts. However, her bossiness hides the fear of failing, of losing, of not making it through to the next day.
Ruggiero’s ability to deconstruct a 1950s era “book musical” and bring out what makes it enduring is why his shows resonate, especially on the expansive Muny stage. Despite my familiarity with a show I’ve seen multiple times, he makes it seem that I’m seeing it for the first time – namely “Hello, Dolly!” “South Pacific” and “Oklahoma” at the Muny, and award-winning “Follies” and “Sunday in the Park with George” at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.
Besides a vulnerability that seeps through in this “Gypsy,” there is an undercurrent of hunger. People are hungry physically, emotionally and mentally. They crave some things that have been out of reach or are not yet attainable, whether it be a nourishing meal, a living wage, a sense of worth or a dream realized.
Because of this deeper context, the musical is not just a showcase for Momma Rose, and this cast has an abundance of talent. Adam Heller captures nice-guy agent Herbie, the good cop to Rose’s bad cop, in a nuanced portrait of the man Rose loves – and pushes around. He and Leavel, a real-life couple, are noticeably in sync in their numbers “You’ll Never Get Away from Me” and “Together Wherever We Go.”
While they headline, Julia Knitel is a stealth bomber. Lanky and awkward as a reluctant Louise, the proverbial people-pleaser who only wants what Momma says is best, she blooms as Gypsy Rose Lee. It’s a striking performance, and her physical transformation is astonishing – although Knitel was already endearing from the get-go, especially in the heartbreaking “Little Lamb.”

She and Hayley Podschun as June share nice moments, including “If Momma Was Married.”
Their younger counterparts, Amelie Lock as Baby June and Elise Edwards as Baby Louise, are winsome performers. It’s a slick move when Ruggiero transitions them from young to older midway in a number.
Another standout is St. Louisan and Muny regular Drew Redington as Tulsa, a superb dancer who outgrows the kiddie act. His solo to “All I Need Is the Girl” is sensational.

The scene-stealing strippers in “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” are not only a hilarious sight gag but terrific performers who were a bright spot of comic relief. Jennifer Cody as Tessie Tura, Ann Harada as an older Electra and Ellen Harvey as a statuesque Mazeppa were laugh-out-loud funny.
Lighting designer John Lasiter’s precise work deserves mention, as does costume designer Amy Clark, going the showbiz gamut from kitsch to glitz — and those distinctive patterned cloth coats for Rose.

Scenic designer Luke Cantarella draped the show in reality – muted colors for drab sets to indicate the hardships during financially strapped times, and the dingy two-bit nature of the fading vaudeville circuit.
Ruggiero’s dream team of choreographer Ralph Perkins and music director James Moore assured that the song-and-dance numbers would be first-rate. They’ve worked together on multiple productions.
Nevertheless, maestro Moore raised the bar. He displayed his expertise conducting the orchestra in an overture that was so magnificent the audience applauded midway. And this was only the start of something special. The orchestra’s big wall of sound, with all that splendid brass, was one of the show’s best elements..
After all, what great material to work with — Jule Styne wrote this unforgettable music. He’s behind such famous tunes as “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” “Let It Snow” and ‘The Party’s Over.” Paired with lyrics by the incomparable Stephen Sondheim, fresh off “West Side Story,” these songs have stood the test of time.
“Everything’s Coming Up Roses” brings the house down at the end of Act I. And Leavel still had plenty left in her tank for Act 2.
After Rose has cajoled and bullied her way through nearly two acts, we are ready for Momma to confront her demons in the showstopper “Rose’s Turn.”
In this emotional wallop, Leavel gave it everything she had, defiantly going through a litany of anger, frustration and regrets for Rose to finally realize she did it for herself. And to herself.
It’s one of the greatest scenes ever, and Leavel hits it over the free-seats fence. Afterwards, we had to let it sink in, like she did in catharsis, and then wave after wave of applause stopped the show until the very long ovation waned.
That shared experience is what we all hope for when watching live theater, and she earned it, seizing her moment, fearless and alone on that stage.
While the show is bleak – and I’ve seen productions that were darker – there is still a glimmer of hope: that mothers and daughters can reconcile, that brighter days are ahead, and that all the work that goes into a goal was worth it.
This “Gypsy” doesn’t sugar-coat show business or struggles, and instead tells us about real-and-flawed people trying to get by and get noticed. It’s a remarkable achievement in storytelling and features a cast that makes you feel everything they experience.
“Gypsy” was clearly ahead of its time, back in 1959. And this week it was time for the Muny to hit repeat in a brand new way for this Centennial Season.
“Gypsy” is presented July 27 through Aug. 2 at 8:15 p.m. nightly at The Muny’s outdoor stage in Forest Park. For more information or tickets, visit www.muny.org or call MetroTix at 314- 534-1111.

Photos by Phillip  Hamer