Woodminster's exciting musical production - - "Paint Your Wagon" thrills theater goers!

Anthony Bernal as Julio Valvaras & Amy Nielson as Jennifer Rumson

Photo Credit: Kathy Kahn

The Woodminster Amphitheater in Joaquin Miller Park has once again delivered a remarkably heartwarming and fun-filled musical, “Paint Your Wagon”, executed to absolute perfection this past weekend in the Oakland Hills. The Woodminster Summer Musicals series ends this coming weekend with the 3rd musical of their summer series that began with “Hairspray”, followed by “the Music Man” and closing with this rousing delightful production of a 1950’s musical that is seldom done.

It is more likely that if you have memories of this musical, you probably remember the 1969 movie of the same name, which was adapted from the 1951 Lerner and Loewe stage musical. The movie starred Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood. Unfortunately, the movie is a quite different story from the stage musical which is more entertaining and contains a beautiful love story.

The stage version, penned by Alan Jay Lerner, with music by Fredrick Loewe, focuses our attention on the gold mania in the area near Sonora, California in 1853, right in the middle of the first great California gold rush. The heart of the story is about a rugged old miner, Ben Rumson (Kelly Houston), and his 16 year old daughter, Jennifer (Amy Nielson). While conducting a makeshift funeral for a friend, his daughter discovers gold in the excavated soil and before the funeral is hardly concluded, Ben lays claim to the area, changing his life from that day forward. Ben’s overnight wealth and the hoard of miners who deluge the area within a two month period, transform the hillside area into a rough and tumble mining camp populated by over 400 miners and zero women, other than Rumson’s daughter, Jennifer.

While the men respect Ben Rumson, they are having a very difficult time keeping their hands and thoughts off his beautiful daughter. Out of respect for Ben, they ask him to send his daughter off to an eastern school, out of sight, out of mind! Ben is not excited about living the bachelor life without his daughter, who is now old enough to cook and clean his clothes and cabin.

Among the gold seekers is a former saloon manager by the name of Jake Whippany (Michael Cassidy) who has visions of striking it big so that he can build a fancy bar and dance hall to accommodate his former associate, Cherry Jourdel (Stephanie Rhoads), and her “Fandango “dance hall girls. More importantly, on the outskirts of the more successful gold-rich claim area is a young Hispanic miner, Julio Valveras (Anthony Bernal), relegated to the poor diggings area of the camp, primarily because he is racially ostracized by the predominantly white majority.

The miners also miss the comforts of civilization, but jump at the chance of having their laundry done by a Chinese laundress who comes to the camp once a month. Julio uses the services of the laundress as well, but on one occasion, while bringing his laundry to the general store where everybody deposits their cleaning for the monthly pickup, he accidentally injures his foot on the trail. The injury slows him down and he arrives too late for the pickup. While limping around and cursing his misfortune, he encounters Jennifer, who introduces herself, makes him sit down on the general store porch and dresses his wound. They become friends and Jennifer begins to meet him secretly to pickup his laundry on a regular basis, to do it herself. A romance blooms between the two, beginning with a romantic song about loneliness entitled, “I Talk to the Trees”.

Into this male dominated madness drifts a Morman man (Bill Farhner) and his two wives, seeking a place to settle down after attempting to make his fortune from the gold run. Without the finances to outfit himself with mining gear or the resources to feed both his wives, he seems stalemated. The miners offer a solution by first telling him that Rumson Town is not Morman country and if he wants to find any peace in this valley, and find a way to finance his dreams of a golden future, he might consider selling one of his wives, perhaps to the highest bidder. He offers his second wife (with whom he is childless) up for auction, but it is the wealthy and widowed Ben Rumson, who purchases the second wife, Elizabeth (Susan Himes Powers, for himself. His daughter Jennifer is disgusted with her father’s actions in buying a wife and asks to be sent away to school, which Ben is not opposed to now that he has someone else to darn his socks and make his bed. Jennifer cannot read nor write and feels that this will be her only opportunity to obtain some education to make her a more complete woman, even though she dreads the thought of leaving her Hispanic boyfriend. She tells Julio she will only be away for one year and they sing of their resolve to remain true to each other in the very beautiful song, “Carino Mio”.

While there is a lot more to this story, I don’t want to give away any more of the ups or downs fate bestows upon the charismatic characters in this play, I will tell you that the talent in this show is incredible, absolutely incredible. The professional talent is rampant amid gorgeous voices everywhere, throughout the entire musical. Kelly Houston, who plays Ben Rumson, is stellar! Anthony Bernal (Julio) is equally endowed with warm, dulcet tones in the baritone range. Dwight Mahabir reminisces and romanticizes with his exquisite vocal talent as he brings back an old favorite, “They Call the Wind Maria(h)”. I emphasize the “h” at end of the Maria because it is pronounced Mariah, not Maria. I had forgotten this great song even came from this musical. There are lots of great song memories in this musical including “Wand’rin’ Star”, “I Talk to the Trees”, and of course, “Carino Mio”, and many others written by the incomparable Lerner and Loewe. I cannot begin to laude all the talent with the great voices, both men and women, as I just do not have the space.

In addition, the choreography by Jody Jaron is excellent and the orchestra, under the articulate direction of Richard Vetterli is rich and rewarding. In these days of synthesized and canned music, nothing satisfies or enriches a theatrical performance more that a resplendent fully staged orchestra under the dynamic direction of an accomplished director such as Richard Vetterli. Director Joel Schlader has pulled out all stops with terrific lighting, great acting and musical talent, superb dancers and excellent set designs. I am frankly amazed how a company can mount such a superb production and only run their shows for two weeks, for each show.
If you want to bring your summer to a spectacular conclusion, under stars in the beautiful Joaquin Miller Park, while enjoying a terrific musical, then call now and reserve your seats as this is one of their best offerings.

I highly recommend the short drive down highway 13 to Joaquin Miller Park, just above the Mormon Temple, at 3300 Joaquin Miller Road, in the Oakland Hills to take in “Paint Your Wagon”. Theatre under the stars can be a bit chilly, even this early in September, so dress in layers and bring a tush cushion if you do not have ample cushioning of your own. This is a great place to come early, bring a picnic basket and eat dinner in the park before the theatre performs in the evening. You can also purchase food in theater compound and I highly recommend the hotdog vender (a recent addition, separate from the refreshment stand) whose polish dogs are outstanding! All shows begin at 8 p.m., Thursday, Friday, Saturday and closing this coming Sunday (September12th ). Ticket prices range between $25 and $40 each, with a $2 discount for children and seniors. Children and Teens under 16, each accompanied by a paying adult can get in free. Call (510) 531-9597 or go online to Ticketweb.com or contact http://www.woodminster.com/ for additional information or ordering tickets.