The bottom line
Now playing at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre through June 25, this “revisal” of the classic musical about the California Gold Rush, Paint Your Wagon, features a new book written by Pulitzer Prize nominee Jon Marans. (The songs and score of the original production, which first ran on Broadway in 1951, have long been considered spectacular but the plot and character development have often been criticized as weak.) My 13-year-old daughter, who declared the show “so great,” was thoroughly swept up by the new choreography and freshened-up story about a ragtag group who launch the No Name City mining town, drawn west by “gold fever.” The show also prompted good discussion about who is “American,” segregation and women’s rights.
The 5th Avenue Theatre production of Paint Your Wagon offers up the same classic songs (“Wand’rin’ Star,” “They Call the Wind Maria,” “I Talk to the Trees”) as the original by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner, the legendary duo behind Broadway musical hits like My Fair Lady and Brigadoon. But the 5th Avenue Theatre opted to reinvent the original book, which told the story of the California Gold Rush (which started around 1849) “primarily through the eyes of white men,” Marans says in the show’s program notes.
“This new version is hopefully closer to the true story. It is about a time in American history when the world converged on California. Where suddenly all these disparate people were thrown together, forced to work together, or at least interact, in this exciting but dangerous world. [This is a story about] how it changed all of them.”
This updated version includes fortune seekers from China, Ireland and Eastern Europe; a free black man from the North; a slave from the South accompanying his entrepreneurial master; and a Latino (Armando) whose family owned a sprawling ranch near the new mining town. In a wonderful performance, Tony-nominated actor Robert Cuccioli plays lead Ben Rumson, a loner who befriends Armando, saves a Mormon wife from her abusive card shark husband (and marries her) and becomes reluctant mayor of the new mining town. When Rumson's daughter falls in love with Armando, he's forced to wrestle with (and eventually overcome) his own prejudices.
Along the way, the story also tracks No Name City’s rise (it starts with just a handful of tents) and inevitable fall (it ends with multiple storefronts including a saloon full of dancing girls and gambling tables) as the gold veins get tapped out. Individual characters’ storylines twist and overlap and are too numerous to detail.
Suffice to say there’s plenty of fodder for discussion with your kids. What about Jake’s segregated saloon and his definition of what makes a “true American”? What about terms like the Irish “Mick” and Chinese “Coolie”? What about Guang-Li cutting off his traditional braid to become more American? What about the dancing girls and “painted ladies”? What about the Mormon husband who hits one of his wives and winds up selling her off to Rumson? What about the slave, Wesley, buying his own freedom by selling handmade straw hats to the newly prosperous miners?
If this all sounds like a whole lot of lessons and not a lot of fun, think again. There’s plenty of rollicking dance and musical numbers (my daughter couldn’t stop humming the finale “Take the Wheels off the Wagon” tune). We especially liked an opening number, where the miners use their gold pans as percussion instruments.
Parents should know: Age recommendation
The 5th Avenue Theatre declares the show PG-13. There’s some adult language (including the F-bomb), physical violence (including a knife fight, punching, and violence against women) and sexual innuendo. Read their content advisory here for details. The PG-13 rating aside, I wouldn’t hesitate to take my son, who is 10, to this show.
If you go…
When: Paint Your Wagon runs through June 25. Show times are listed online.
Where: The 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle. Plenty of parking garages nearby; light rail University Station is a quick walk.
Length: About 2 hours and 40 minutes with one 20-minute intermission.
Tickets: Start at $36 (at press time some shows were selling for $29) and may be purchased online or at 888-5TH-4TIX or 206-625-1900.
Tips: Be sure to walk your kids up to the theater’s top seating level so they can get a better look at the amazing dragon (and attendant Chinese lantern-style chandelier) on the ceiling.
The upstairs bathroom has many more stalls than the main floor. Pre-order your intermission drinks and snacks (including the enormous brownies and chocolate chip cookies on offer) to avoid long lines.
Children under age 4, including babes in arms, not allowed.