The lesson of "Waterfall," the ersatz new musical at the Pasadena Playhouse, is that you can't judge a show by the resumes of the artists.
Richard Maltby Jr., who wrote the book and lyrics, won a Tony for his direction of "Ain't Misbehavin'" and has received a slew of nominations for his Broadway work as a producer, writer and lyricist.
David Shire, who composed the music, has a bio stuffed with accolades, including two Grammys and an Academy Award. "Baby," the 1983 show that Maltby and Shire collaborated on, hasn't had such a stellar afterlife, but it received multiple Tony nominations.
"Waterfall" stars Emily Padgett, the talented soprano who lit up the recent Broadway revival of "Side Show" as one of the conjoined twins. Bie Sukrit — touted in the program as "one of Thailand's most accomplished singers and actors, and biggest stars" — is the male lead.
Broadway veteran choreographer Dan Knechtges co-directed the show with Tak Viravan, who is apparently "one of the most influential figures in Thailand's entertainment industry."
With a creative team of such fancy pedigree, one would expect at the very least a polished production. But "Waterfall" is to Broadway-quality musical theater what an amateur watercolor is to a landscape painting hanging in the Norton Simon Museum.
This willfully old-fashioned musical wants so badly to be pretty in its scenic frills and sentimental flourishes that it entirely forgets about being true. Stitched together from clichés that scream "cliché," replete with rhymes that a third-grader could guess and set to music so generic that it can seem computer generated, the show recycles Golden Age tropes without renewing their essential ingredient: sincerity.
This is one of those love stories, set in Japan in the years leading up to World War II, that even Puccini might have found trite.
Padgett plays Katherine, the beautiful American wife of Chao Khun Atikarn (Thom Sesma), a much older Siamese statesman, who is negotiating a treaty with Japan. Noppon (Sukrit), a talented Siamese student who is obsessed with all things American, is assigned to keep Katherine company. He promptly falls in love with this amateur painter who teaches him a lesson in the poignancy of beauty.
Not just any love, mind you — but the soul-quaking, irony-free kind of amour that happens within the antiquated scope of grand opera, 19th century tubercular drama and weepy black-and-white movie melodrama. Naturally, the plot is chockablock with scandalous secrets, marital and cultural obstacles to bliss and fearsome historical turmoil (not just the impending war but Siam's transition to modern Thailand).
Sukrit is handsomely endearing, Padgett sings prettily and Sesma brings a much-needed dignity, but the actors are sinking in a quicksand of banalities. The first act ends with Sukrit ripping off his shirt and embracing Padgett beside a waterfall, and the climax involves a deathbed. Padgett's stilted intonation so exaggerates the hackneyed nature of the dialogue that the performance might be mistaken for camp were it not for the humorlessness of the role.
The staging has the trinket-y thrills of one of those commercials for live entertainment that blare in the back seat of Las Vegas taxis.
There's some fizzy cultural critique in the number "America Will Break Your Heart," but the material is not well integrated into the romantic storyline. The Pasadena Playhouse is nobly committed to diversity, but offerings of this clumsy, obsolete, baldly commercial kind only harm the nonprofit theater's standing.
Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 28.
Info: (626) 356-7529, http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes