Lovers don’t get any more star-crossed than Noppon and Katherine, the star-crossed lovers of Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire’s uber-romantic musical tearjerker Waterfall, now getting a gorgeously staged, gorgeously performed World Premiere production at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Set primarily in Bangkok and Tokyo in the tumultuous decade preceding Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Waterfall already hints in its 1945 prologue that Happily Ever After may not be in the cards for our Thai student hero and the older (but still very young) American wife of an older (much older) Thai diplomat stationed in Japan.
It’s attraction (if not yet love) at first sight when pop-star cute Noppon (real-life Thai pop star Bie Sukrit) is introduced to blonde and beautiful Katherine (blonde and beautiful Broadway star Emily Padgett) by her bordering-on-elderly husband Chau Khun Atikarn (far from elderly Thom Sesma), who has taken aspiring diplomat Noppon under his wing.
Though our young hero’s best Thai buds Santi (Jordan De Leon) and Surin (Colin Miyamoto) and their American-born-and-bred gal pal Kumiko (Lisa Helmi Johanson) warn Noppon in three-part harmony that “America Will Break Your Heart” (and by America, they mean your boss’s American wife), before long it’s pretty much impossible for Noppon and Katherine to deny that their feelings have gone beyond mutual attraction, especially since Atakarn seems bent on having his protégé spend as much time as possible with his presumably sexually unsatisfied missus.
In fact the only one in Katherine’s household who seems at all bent out of shape about the possibility of Asian-Caucasian love-making is Katherine’s disapproving maid Nuan (J. Elaine Marcos), whose repeated insistence that “It’s not my place to say” reveals exactly how she feels, i.e. “Girl, don’t even think about going there.”
As Noppon and Katherine explore the wonders of ancient Kyoto at the annual Tanabata Festival, Japanese Foreign Minister Takamoto (Steven Eng) makes it perfectly clear in a nearby hotel suite that song title (“I Like Americans”) to the contrary, the foreign minister most certainly does not like Katherine’s people, nor does Japan harbor anything but animosity towards its future enemy.
No indeed, things do not bode well for Noppon and Katherine (nor for Thailand or America for that matter), though at least our young lovers will have their very own waterfall-drenched “Shall We Dance?” moment to remember.
To be precise, Maltby and Shire have titled Waterfall’s Act One finale “May I Have This Dance?”—though this is hardly the only time Waterfall recalls The King And I, and since it’s been fifty-four years since Broadway’s last Thai musical, it’s about time for another cross-cultural waltz.
If the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic told its tale from an American point of view (and a rather paternalistic one at that), it should come as refreshing news that Waterfall started its life not in the USA but as the 2008 smash Thai hit Behind the Painting, which starred Sukrit, was directed by Waterfall director Tak Viravan, and featured Waterfall scenic designer Sasavat Busayabandh’s designs.
Much has changed in the seven years since Behind The Painting debuted. It has a new title, a new book by Maltby, new songs by lyricist Maltby and composer Shire (though original composer Nan Sarawut’s “Work Of Art” remains), an almost all-new set design by Busayabandh, and a Caucasian heroine to replace its Thai female lead, but with the original Thai creative trio intact, audiences can rest assured that Waterfall treats Thai culture and people with a respect not always present in regional King & I stagings.
Some may carp that Waterfall veers rather too closely into Douglas Sirk territory, that its “And then this happened” narration could use a rethink, and that there’s nothing all that new in boy meets girl, boy loses girl …
Still, with melodies as beautiful as David Shire fans have come to expect in Maltby-Shire collaborations like Baby and Closer Than Ever and lead performers as gosh-darn beautiful as Padgett and Sukrit (with voices as stunning as their looks and acting chops to match), I’m guessing that audiences will fall for Waterfall, if perhaps not quite as deeply as Katherine and Noppon fall for each other.
One thing is certain. If you’re anything like this reviewer, prepare to wipe away tears and stifle sobs.
With Vivaran and co-director Dan Knechtges confidently in charge, the cast supporting Padgett and Sukrit do all-around terrific work, beginning with Sesma’s quietly dignified Atakarn and Marcos’s snooty Nuan, so deliciously passive-aggressive that you wish the tsk-tsking maid’s part was twice as big.
The scene-stealing trio of De Leon, Johanson, and Miyamoto provide delightful comic relief with their sassy, eye-opening glimpse into just who was not “Welcome To America” (no Asians allowed, and Gaysians even less so).
The dynamic Eng gives us a Japanese foreign minister whose professed liking of things American is the farthest thing from either his personal truth or his country’s. Kimberly Immanuel makes for an absolutely lovely Pree (even if her character’s arrival had this reviewer blurting out a dismayed “Oh, no!”).
L.A. favorites Eymard Cabling and Marcus Choi are additional standouts in Waterfall’s mostly New York-based cast as the Siamese Ambassador and Japanese Attaché.
Rona Figueroa, Immanuel, and Riza Takahashi’s tight-harmonied Yamaguchi sisters give the Andrews a run for their dollars (or yen). As for Kenway Hon Wai K. Kua, Leon Le, and Koh Mochizuki’s taiko drummers, not only do they beat their Japanese drums to perfection, they do so in loin cloths that leave little of their Men’s Fitness-ready physiques to the imagination. (More stage time please?)
Choreographer Knechtges gives sensational ensemble members Cabling, Choi, De Leon, Figueroa, Immanuel, Kua, Le, Koh Mochizuki, Celia Mei Rubin, dance captain Darryl Semira, Takahashi, Kay Trinidad, and Minami Yusui the most exotic musical theater dance steps since Jerome Robbins brought “The Small House Of Uncle Thomas” to Broadway back in 1951, in addition to assorted 1930s Western moves.
Busyabandh’s exquisite watercolor-on-rice paper sets are strikingly lit by Ken Billington and complemented by Caite Hevner Kemp’s lovely projections. Wade Laboissonniere’s costumes could not be more resplendent, from 1930s modern (Katherine’s slinky dresses in particular) to traditional Thai and Japanese. J. Jared Janas’s hair, wig, and makeup designs are period/culture-perfect as well, with sound designer Dan Moses Schreier’s pitch-perfect mix of vocals and instrumentals completing the outstanding production design.
Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations, John McDaniel’s music supervision (and additional arrangements), and Greg Jarrett’s dance arrangements make Shire’s melodies sound even more gorgeous, particularly as performed by the Pasadena Playhouse’s Broadway-caliber pit orchestra under McDaniel’s baton.
Casting is by Stewart/Whitley. Additional artistic credits are shared by Mark Hartman (associate conductor), Kenneth Ferrone (associate director), Jessica Hartman (associate choreographer), and Christine Peters (associate scenic designer)
Andrew Neal is production stage manager, Lucy Kennedy is assistant stage manager, and Heathyr “Red” Verhoef is production manager-assistant stage manager.
Waterfall is produced for the Pasadena Playhouse in association with Seattle’s The 5th Avenue Theatre (where it will have an October run) by Jack M. Dalgleish and Scenario Company Limited.
Joe Witt is general manager and Kristen Hammack is producing associate-company manager.
Pasadena Playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps and associate artistic director Seema Sueko have made diversity a first priority at the Playhouse, and just as last year’s Kiss Me Kate attracted an African-American audience that might otherwise have passed on Cole Porter, so too Waterfall is likely to draw in Asian-American theatergoers by the droves … and rightfully so.
It is marvelous musical entertainment destined to hold any romantic in its exotic spell.
Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena.
June 7, 2015
Photos: Jim Cox