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'Wagon' always a bit creaky, but SRT loads it with gold

COLUMBIA — If we're honest, we'll have to admit that "Paint Your Wagon" is not one of the great musicals.

The 1951 show, now being presented by Sierra Repertory Theatre, has only a few good songs and it centers on a romance that is difficult to understand.

But Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's musical always will have a special place in our hearts because it's about our own little corner of the world. It takes place during the Gold Rush in a fictional Mother Lode town near Sonora.

Presented in the historic 19th-century Fallon House Theatre (as perfect as a setting as can be found for this show), director Dennis Jones' production offers a high-spirited account of the taming of the Wild West.

The story it tells is very different than the 1969 movie starring Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin and Modesto product Harve Presnell. Gone is the tale of prospectors Ben Rumson and Pardner sharing a wife. In its place is a plot about Rumson struggling to protect his 16-year-old daughter, Jennifer, at the all-male gold-mining camp and her burgeoning romance with Mexican miner Julio.

Ty Smith makes Rumson an intriguing character — gruff but kind, greedy but generous. However, he's not the strongest singer in the world, and at Saturday evening's performance, he got off time from the recorded orchestra accompaniment in the beginning of the show.

Operatically trained Jen Faith Brown, who plays Jennifer, and musical veteran Ben Gonio,who plays Julio, have no trouble managing their many solos throughout the show. They both sound heavenly in the show's ode to loneliness, "I Talk To the Trees."

Brown consistently demonstrates great love for Gonio, who is attractive but somewhat of a cold fish.

I wished Jennifer would find a new man because Julio keeps her at a distance, refuses to take her in when she needs help and leaves on a long trip without telling her when or if he will ever return.

Tall and handsome Jon Reinhold makes a striking turn as saloon owner Jake, showing off a rich, full-bodied voice — reminiscent of 1950s movie musicals — in the majestic ballad "They Call the Wind Maria" (Presnell's tour de force).

Lulu Lloyd and Betsy Nickels are hilarious as the constantly bickering wives of a polygamous Mormon pioneer. Their deliciously catty scenes are the highlight of the production.

In an uncharacteristically amateurish decision for this quality theater company, a few of the rough and feisty gold miners are played by young women wearing beards.

Choreographers Roddy Kennedy and Cassie Nordgren create some energetic dances for the men and the seductive prostitutes who entertain them, including flips, spins and lifts. The women also get to show off their flexibility in a high-kicking, skirt-swirling cancan.

Tracy M. Ward's authentic-looking Old West costumes stand out nicely against Jones' picture-book set. Stars twinkle in the sky over the cut-out evergreen trees and storefronts.

As the show ends to the hypnotic trotting-horse rhythm of "Wand'rin' Star," you might find yourself envying those old days when the West still was wide open and free.

Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan can be reached at 578-2313 or