Originally published on CastAlbums.org.
Paint Your Wagon is exactly the kind of show Encores does best. It was an early effort by one of Broadway’s most successful songwriting teams (Lerner & Loewe), working in an explicitly American idiom (gold-rush Americana). The show was a moderate success, but the cast album was severely truncated. The film bore little resemblance to the show, nor was it very good. So despite a couple of hit songs (“I Talk to the Trees” and “They Call the Wind Maria“), the show more or less faded into obscurity.
When the curtain rose at City Center in March, 2015 to a gloriously large orchestra (44 musicians!) playing a pulsing overture that immediately evoked the American west, audiences knew they were in for a treat. With a trio of perfectly cast leads — Keith Carradine as old miner Ben Rumson, Alexandra Socha as his daughter Jennifer, and Justin Guarini as the love interest Julio — songs familiar and surprising sprang to life.
As is often the case with Encores presentations, the story (involving Jennifer’s forbidden romance with Mexican Julio and her father’s questionable romance with Elizabeth (Jenni Barber), the second wife of Mormon bigamist Jacob (William Youmans) who is “sold” to Ben) wasn’t terribly satisfying (It’s telling that although the album’s liner notes include three essays contextualizing the show, a plot summary is absent). But who cares about the story with a score this delicious?
The show’s setting — the almost exclusively male gold rush town of Rumson City — provides the opportunity for an all-male chorus that gets to shine in rousing numbers like “I’m On My Way” and “Whoop-Ti-Ay.” Carradine’s folksy, character-rich voice is perfectly matched to the tired but loving widower seeking a new beginning, offering a tender reading of “I Still See Elisa” and bringing gentle wisdom to “Wand’rin’ Star.” Guarini surprised those who doubted the former American Idol runner up with his sweet, straightforward takes on “I Talk to the Trees” and the gorgeous, overlooked “Another Autumn.”
Nathaniel Hackmann (as Steve, one of the leaders of the miner community) lends his robust baritone to “They Call The Wind Maria” that makes one wish the character had more to do in the score. But the real star of the recording is Socha, who not only has a gorgeous, classic voice but brings gobs of personality to numbers like “What’s Goin; On Here?” and “How Can I Wait?” It’s the kind of performance that makes you want to plan a season of classic musicals around her talents — or at least beg her to record an album of neglected tunes from the Golden Age of Broadway.
Although the album is only seeing the light of day in May, 2016, it was recorded a full year ago — close enough to the actual performance that it feels like a living show, avoiding the museum-like sterility that sometimes befalls reconstructions of classic shows. Much of the credit for the album’s liveliness must be directed at musical director Rob Berman, under whose baton the orchestra never lets the concert hall overpower the hoedown (And they get a workout, too – of the 28 orchestrated tracks, five are orchestral pieces!)
There’s also a bonus track, featuring Socha and Carradine performing a cut song, “What Do Other Folks Do?” with a piano accompaniment. As the title implies, the idea for this song (although not the actual melody or lyrics) was later reused for “What Do The Simple Folk Do?” in Camelot. While the gorgeously elaborate album would have been a blessing on its own, the inclusion of this bonus curiosity is a delightful treat.