Downey Civic Light Opera concludes its 58th (and sadly last) season with a production that once again illustrates what DCLO and the illustrious Marsha Moode do best—even with a second-rate musical like the largely (and justly) forgotten 62-year-old chestnut that is Lerner & Lowe’s Paint Your Wagon.

Performances are first-rate, the DCLO orchestra has never sounded better, dance numbers are terrifically choreographed and performed, and production values are among the best I’ve seen on the Downey Theatre stage.

If only Paint Your Wagon’s score were as memorable as the ones Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe wrote for Brigadoon, Camelot, Gigi, and above all My Fair Lady. If only Lerner’s book had managed to stand the test of time.

Set in Gold Rush-era California, Paint Your Wagon centers on miner Ben Rumson (Richard Gould) and his eighteen-year-old daughter Jennifer (Laura Rensing), a plucky young beauty seemingly unaware of the effect she is having as the sole female amongst the town of Rumson’s four hundred lusty miners, even as the lovely (though sadly illiterate) young lass finds her eye being caught by Julio Valveras (Jason Marquez), a hunky California native forced to live outside Rumson city limits because he is … un Mexicano!

Meanwhile, strapping Mormon Jacob Woodling (Kyle Van Amburgh) has arrived in Rumson with Sarah (Aleesha McNeff) and Elizabeth (Lauren Mayfield), his two (count’em) wives, which is one too many for the horny men of Rumson to put up with as they wait for fellow miner Jake Whippany (William T. Lewis) to have saved up enough gold nuggets to bring French patootie Cherry (Allison McGuire) and her stable of “Fandango Girls” out west to “entertain” the menfolk with their leggy charms.

Before long, Ben has paid $800 for Elizabeth to become his child bride and his daughter has headed back east to Boston to get herself “edgeacated.”

Later, as the mines begin to run dry, Ben has no other recourse but to sell Elizabeth for a cool $3000 to gambler Raymond Janney (John Michaelson), who soon learns to his dismay that his newly purchased bride has skipped town with clandestine lover Edgar Crocker (Glenn Edward).

A newly literate Jennifer returns home only to find that Julio has gone off in search of a “golden lake” with Irishman Mike Mooney (Ed Krieger), there being no more gold in them thar hills surrounding Rumson.

As the above synopsis might suggest, Paint Your Wagon’s book could already have used some work way back in 1951 when it debuted on Broadway to a mere 289 performances (compared to Brigadoon’s 581 and My Fair Lady’s 2717).

Despite this rather unillustrious track record, Paint Your Wagon did introduce a trio of hit tunes (“Wand’rin’ Star”, “I Talk to the Trees” and “They Call the Wind Maria”), and though a few other songs prove memorable, most have unhappily not stood the test of time any better than Lerner’s book.

Fortunately, the one-and-only Moode makes the most of Paint Your Wagon’s lackluster material, directing with her accustomed panache, once again aided and abetted by choreographer Nathan Wise, whose lively polkas and French can-cans are among the evening’s high points.

Gould sings gorgeously and has fine comedic chops, but the role of Ben would be better served by a younger leading man, one who could make the song “In Between” less farfetched and Elizabeth’s excitement at the prospect of marrying a man old enough to be her father (not grandfather) more credible.

There can be no complaints about tall, dark, and handsome—and velvet-voiced—Marquez or his gorgeous leading lady, Rensing proving a sparkling, spunky delight in her first DCLO leading role.

Among Downey CLO regulars, Lewis is terrific as feisty Fandango impresario Jake and Krieger an Irish charmer as Mike, while William Crisp, Edward, Michael McGreal, and Kit Wilson return one last time with their razor-sharp barbershop-quartet harmonies.

The charismatic Timothy Hearl gets his flashiest DCLO role as miner Steve Bulmarck, McGuire makes for a saucy French Cherry, and all three fine-looking Mormons (Mayfield, McNeff, and Van Amburgh) score high marks as well.

Dancers Katelyn Blockinger, Charlie Bostick, Heather Cadarette, Ryan Chlanda, Christopher Curry (Pete), Michelle Farley, Carlos Ferrusca, Denai Lovrien (Suzanne), Steven Murray, Chelsea Rountree, Calista Ruiz, David Smith, and Nicole Stier execute choreographer Wise’s moves with precision and flair.

Giana Bommarito, Jason Bornstein, Terry Fitts, Samuel Goldman, Greg Hardash, Randy Long, Rio James Martinez (Hiram Henry), Michaelson, Michael Montiel, Eric A. Peterson, Ted Singer, Jennifer Sperry, Katie Toussaint, Sheri Vasquez, Sean Williams (Reuben), and Dee Wilson complete the more-than-capable cast.

Elizabeth Bowen’s costumes, Jacqui Jones’ lighting, and some particularly fine rented sets make Paint Your Wagon one of the best-looking DCLO productions in recent years, while musical director-conductor Eddy Clement and sound designer Jay Lee make it one of the best-sounding ones as well. Mark Keller is technical director. Sally Casey Bell is stage manager.

Paint Your Wagon concludes  fifty-eight seasons of Downey Civic Light Opera gems to the city of Downey’s great shame and to its citizens greater misfortune. Even a first-rate production of a second-rate show makes it abundantly clear to what extent Southern California musical theater will suffer from the loss of this irreplaceable local treasure.

Downey Theatre, 8435 E. Firestone Blvd., Downey.

–Steven Stanley
May 31, 2013

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