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More shimmer than shine

Times Staff Writer

A rich vein runs through the Gold Rush musical “Paint Your Wagon,” and someday someone will fully mine it.

Presented by Geffen Playhouse, a substantially rewritten version of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s show strikes close to pay dirt. More than the 1951 Broadway original and certainly more than the ludicrous 1969 film version, this new presentation homes in on what makes the story so special: the notion of ‘49ers so intent on finding gold that they at first overlook the true bounty. As envisioned by Geffen producing director Gilbert Cates and revised by David Rambo, the new show suggests that what really awaited the miners was discovery of their own potential. Through dreams and through honest sweat, they would help to establish a great nation.

The music in this version -- presented in the Geffen’s temporary home at the Brentwood Theatre -- is quite good, and the staging makes inventive use of a small cast and smaller stage. But like scriptwriter and lyricist Lerner before them, Cates and Rambo tart up the show in a misguided attempt to make it more entertaining.

The setting is 1852, in what will become a boom-and-bust camp near Sacramento. Right away, the central character, a wanderer named Ben Rumson, gives voice to what will become a recurring theme. “Everybody’s got a right to his own dream,” he tells his 16-year-old daughter, Jennifer. Shortly thereafter, she notices a glint in an unearthed rock, and a gold rush is on.

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Rather daringly for its time, the original depicted Jennifer as a woman as resilient as any of the men on the frontier. Still more daringly, it gave her a Latino love interest. Jennifer disappeared in the film, in which a hammy Lee Marvin, as Ben, was given not a daughter but a partner, played by Clint Eastwood. In a story that spun wildly out of control, the Marvin and Eastwood characters jointly married a woman, and their boomtown sank into the earth after it had been, quite literally, undermined.

Happily, in the Geffen version, Jennifer and her lover return, while the partner, the shared wife and the sinking town have been jettisoned. Oddly, though, one thing has survived in all versions: a Mormon settler accompanied by his two wives. In the current show, a mean-spirited song from the original, in which the wives squabble while ostensibly at prayer, has been restored -- which seems particularly shortsighted, given that the script otherwise tries to fairly and accurately reflect California’s culturally diverse heritage by including Chinese and freed-slave miners.

As Ben, Tom Wilson -- tall, sturdily built and singing in a lush bass-baritone -- comes across as a sensitive, responsible father not only to Jennifer but also to the town that, following his strike, bears his name. His goodness shines through most intently in the haunting “I Still See Elisa,” in which he recalls his deceased wife, and in “My Little Girl,” an interpolated Lerner and Loewe song from the 1973 movie “The Little Prince” (and there titled “Little Prince”), in which he regrets losing Jennifer after she sets off to find her lover, who’s been forced to flee.

Portraying Jennifer, Jessica Rush transforms from grubby tomboy, thumbs tucked into trousers, to fresh-scrubbed, radiant young woman. The change begins when she happens upon Julio Valveras, played with dash -- though given a wavering voice -- by Alex Mendoza. When he extends his hand to initiate a waltz, she becomes Eliza Doolittle, the heroine of the Lerner and Loewe show that would follow this one by 4 1/2 years: “My Fair Lady.”

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New in the Geffen version is Bull (Rob Kahn), a villain of the misunderstood-and-now-mean variety who’s been borrowed a bit too unapologetically from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” Ben gets a new love interest too: Lily (Sharon Lawrence), an actress fallen on hard times. She is given a new song, “My Last Love,” interpolated from Lerner and Loewe’s first collaboration, a 1943 show called “What’s Up?”

The set, by Daniel Ionazzi, renders pines and mountains as cutouts built of bare planks, to evoke a sense of a land under construction. Beyond, the sky fills with projected images of sun-painted clouds or stars, as well as period photographs of miners and other settlers.

Steve Orich’s new orchestrations transform just seven players into what seems a recording studio full of musicians, turning out movie-western themes dominated by lonely harmonica and singing guitar. The rousing men’s chorus numbers are, as always, the show’s glory, especially a rethought version of “They Call the Wind Maria” in which the backing instruments blend West and East -- a nod to the cultural fusion occurring on the frontier.

Double-casting and disguises make the 17-member cast seem bigger than it is, though the presence of just three “fandangos,” as the imported prostitutes are called, limits dance hall possibilities for choreographer Kay Cole.

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The good work is most decisively undone, however, by the script. Rambo (also author of “God’s Man in Texas”) gives Jennifer an uncanny ability to stumble upon gold, which contributes to an odd push and pull between drama and comedy -- and seems especially ridiculous when, at one point, the gold resides in the only rock on the bare stage floor. (Cates, as director, overlooks several such howlers.)

Worse, Rambo rips theatergoers out of the 19th century by wisecracking about the Bush administration, a presumed American propensity for war and even Janet Jackson’s wardrobe “malfunction.” The resulting laughs are hollow and self-conscious.

Gold still awaits. Here’s wishing luck to the next prospectors.

*

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‘Paint Your Wagon’

Where: Brentwood Theatre, Veterans Administration campus, enter off San Vicente Boulevard/Bringham Avenue, West Los Angeles

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 4 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Jan. 9

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Price: $42 to $64

Contact: (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.com

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Tom Wilson...Ben Rumson

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Jessica Rush...Jennifer

Alex Mendoza...Julio

Sharon Lawrence...Lily

Rob Kahn...Bull

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Book and lyrics Alan Jay Lerner. Music Frederick Loewe. Adapted by David Rambo. Director Gil Cates. Choreographer Kay Cole. Musical direction, arrangements and orchestrations Steve Orich. Set and lights Daniel Ionazzi. Costumes David Kay Mickelsen. Sound Phil Allen. Production stage manager Grayson Meritt.


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