“Waterfall,” the new cross-cultural, lushly romantic tuner at the Pasadena Playhouse, has admirable ambition, visual splendor and patchy dramaturgy. Working from a Thai source novel, stage veterans Richard Maltby Jr. (words) and David Shire (music) seek to explore cultural identity in personal and political contexts, set against a complex historical backdrop. Which is all too tall an order at this stage of the show’s development. Characterizations and plotlines will need to be firmed up if the next stop, Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre in October, is to be followed by a hoped-for Broadway success.
Set in the Far East in the simmering prewar 1930s, the story has a central triangle that’s straight out of Somerset Maugham: Older ambassador (Thom Sesma) brings young, flighty American wife (Emily Padgett) to his Tokyo posting, where sparks fly with an even younger Thai student (Bie Sukrit) possessing, in his words, “an American eye.” And a roving one.
While our main couple explore each other’s values — and eventually, bodies — a newly democratic Thailand aspires to a place on the world stage through ginger negotiation between two bombastic rising empires, Japan and the U.S. of A. (At times “Waterfall” plays like a de facto “The King and I” sequel, with Mrs. Anna and the young Prince envisioned in a modern Siam.)
Choosing to examine not two but three clashing cultures offers plenty potential conflict, as characters are interestingly pulled among Japanese pan-Asian militarism, American rah-rah capitalism and traditional Siamese serenity. Co-directors Tak Viravan and Dan Knechtges manage to avoid kitsch in evoking each of those elements, as do Knechtges’s dances, so respectful of the traditions from which they spring.
Every scene in “Waterfall” is a visual delight, with Ken Billington’s lighting limpidly bringing out the East’s shimmering palette in Sasavat Busayabandh’s scenic designs. Giant stone-like panels, sliding to reveal and conceal, are jaggedly diagonal to suggest a world threatened with imminent disharmony, even as Caite Hevner Kemp’s watercolor projections make that world seem so very appealing.
Shire’s score, his most versatile work for the musical stage, sets Asian-tinged melodies against robust percussion and jazz interruptions, all filtered through Jonathan Tunick’s cliche-free, period-evocative orchestrations.
But Maltby’s lyrics are light on the striking metaphors one associates with Eastern verse. And in a show already harping on personal identity, he takes too much advantage of “Thai”/”I,” “Siam”/”I am” rhyming.
Most importantly, our protagonists aren’t ready for prime time. The likeable Sukrit, a pop star back home, has a fluid, restrained singing style. But the character he’s been handed is nothing more than a goofy bumpkin with an America fetish. Katherine, the wife, professes to see in him the soul of a vigorous new Siam, but we never can. When he’s supposed to age into a seasoned diplomat, it’s like a kid playing dress-up.
Katherine looks ravishing in Wade Laboissonniere’s gold and chiffon gown (all the costumes, in fact, dazzle). Yet she’s written with irritating timidity. Despite the character’s “notorious” past, Padgett is directed toward ice queen, then drab artiste and finally fading swan.
If the lady were torn between the carnal and spiritual — a Maugham specialty — the glowing Padgett would have something to play. Instead, she’s saddled with a ridiculous comedy relief ditty in which she asks her maid (J. Elaine Marcos) to teach her the ways of “a good Thai wife.” (Something hubby never says he wants, and something not just out of character but never brought up again.
The climactic act-one bath in the titular waterfall is more awkward than lusty. Why are musicals always so demure about sex, when sex is the engine that always drives them?