A world premiere adaptation of Lerner and Loewe's 1951 musical about the California gold rush, this fresh conception by playwright David Rambo ("God's Man in Texas") improves considerably on Lerner's original book and is infinitely superior to the labored, overblown 1969 film version.

A world premiere adaptation of Lerner and Loewe’s 1951 musical about the California gold rush, this fresh conception by playwright David Rambo (“God’s Man in Texas”) improves considerably on Lerner’s original book and is infinitely superior to the labored, overblown 1969 film version. Production’s basic plot, even with skillful restructuring, still has holes, but director Gil Cates mines every bit of drama from the story and elicits several portrayals that are solid gold.

Golden is the only appropriate word for Lerner and Loewe’s score, which immediately creates excitement when miner Ben Rumson (Tom Wilson) defines his restlessness with a rousing “Wand’rin’ Star.” He and tomboy daughter Jennifer (Jessica Rush) are prospectors who strike it rich in 1852, and Rambo sets up colorful characters, including Jake (Robert Alan Clink), who wants to open a dancehall and bring good-time girls to the area, and Bull (Rob Kahn), a villain with contempt for cleanliness and a leering lust for Jennifer.

The most arresting storyline concerns Jennifer’s secret passion for a Mexican miner, Julio (Alex Mendoza), who dreams, like a William Inge character, of finding paradise in Palos Verdes. Suspense is tautly maintained through explosive prejudice he arouses among the bigoted townsfolk and especially the barbaric Bull. This melodrama co-exists neatly with vignettes that include salesman Salem — later to be Levi — Strauss (Steven Hack); amusingly horny Preacher Bainbridge (Harry S. Murphy); and Ben’s pal Ulysses (David Jennings), with Jennings singing with richness and authority.

The standout in Cates’ cast is Sharon Lawrence as Lily, an actress who weds Ben and turns out to be more loving and loyal than he anticipated. The consummate comedienne does wonders with such lines as “I don’t cook, I’m an actress,” and when informed she will become a grandmother, Lily accepts it in true thespian fashion by calling herself “a character woman.”

Rush, as Jennifer, performs with Molly Brown fervor. She overdoes the aggressive spunkiness at first, then relaxes comfortably into her role and provides a strong emotional center. Mendoza has the requisite physical magnetism as her lover, along with a convincing combination of affection for Jennifer and boiling anti-gringo rage. His upper vocal register is a little thin, but he offers a graceful rendition of “I Talk to the Trees” and a particularly beautiful duet with Rush, “Carino Mio.”

High musical moments include “I’m on My Way,” switching to different people and pointing up their aspirations. “There’s a Coach Comin’ In” demonstrates Frederick Loewe’s flair for melodies that fasten firmly in the mind even without benefit of reprises. Tom Wilson’s “My Little Girl” is a quietly affecting portrait of parental love, and Clink, the production’s best male voice, is thrillingly effective on “They Call the Wind Maria,” making us wish he had more solo moments.

Miking is a bit soft; excitement would be enhanced by lifting the sound level, but every number is given its full rhythmic and harmonic due by Steve Orich’s seven-man band and flavorful orchestrations. John Krovoza’s pensive cello is an asset throughout.

The physical confrontations are diminished by understatement. Production’s finale, when Bull is killed, seems too easy, and a climactic fight is stiffly staged. Physical collisions look stagy in general and require more gripping fight choreography.

Kay Cole’s musical choreography, however, gives walloping impetus to “Whoop-Ti-Ay,” a spirited dance featuring the whole company. Cole contributes seductive moves for the town prostitutes, cleverly illustrating what they are, and compensates for eye-filling, elegant costumes more suited to fine ladies than ladies of the evening.

Lighting and scenery by Daniel Ionazzi are impressive, with constantly changing photos of miners that stress the bleakness of their struggle and their environment. These photos furnish a documentary authenticity that adds depth to the more lighthearted antics enacted onstage. By inserting such realistic historical touches and sprinkling the tale with humorous contemporary asides, Cates and Rambo have rescued the show from obscurity and given it a lilting new lease on life.

Paint Your Wagon

Geffen Playhouse/Brentwood Theater; 498 seats; $64 top

Production

A Geffen Playhouse in association with Christopher Allen, D. Constantine Conte and Larry Spellman presentation of a musical in two acts with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner; music by Frederick Loewe. Revised book by David Rambo. Directed by Gilbert Cates.

Creative

Sets and lighting, Daniel Ionazzi; costumes, David Kay Mickelsen; sound, Philip G. Allen; musical direction, Steve Orich; choreography, Kay Cole; production stage manager, Grayson Meritt. Opened and reviewed Dec. 1, 2004; closes Jan. 9. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast

Ben Rumson - Tom Wilson Jennifer Rumson - Jessica Rush Ulysses Wilson - David Jennings Wilmer Wagner, Old Prospector - Morgan Rusler "Bull" Bullnack - Rob Kahn Salem Strauss - Steven Hack Jake Wippany - Robert Alan Clink Cherry Jourdel, Sarah Woodling - Erika Amato Preacher Bainbridge - Harry S. Murphy Ah-Wah - Ian Shen Miwok - Daniel Lujan Julio Valveras - Alex Mendoza Kwai Fa - Janelle Dote Lupita, Elizabeth Woodling - Tracy Powell Lily Smith - Sharon Lawrence Father Ignacio - Joe J. Garcia John Woodling - Andy Umberger

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