'Waterfall': Theater Review
Broadway veterans Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire collaborate with Thai artists on this hapless East/West musical.
When Thai author Siburapha published his celebrated novel Behind the Painting in serialized form in 1937, readers ravenously consumed installments chronicling the life of college student Noppon and his romantic adventures with the wife of a diplomat while studying in Japan. In recent years, Thai director Tak Viravan adapted the novel into a musical featuring local pop star Bie Sukrit. The show's latest iteration at the Pasadena Playhouse maintains Viravan as director and Sukrit in the lead, but the new book and music by Broadway veterans Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire aren’t the only changes. The wife of the diplomat is now an American, which dispenses with the book's themes about social class and shifting mores during a time of political upheaval. The result is Waterfall, an inept and anachronistic musical trying out in Southern California and Seattle in the fall, while aiming for a move to Broadway in 2016.
Noppon’s attempt to penetrate and navigate Thai aristocracy coincides with a new generation’s effort to convert ancient Siam into modern Thailand. “Western Wind” is an opening number gusty enough to propel the story all the way from Bangkok, 1932, to Tokyo a year later, setting up the coming clash between the U.S. and Japan. War is in the air, but so is romance when Noppon is assigned by Thai diplomat Chao Khun Atikarn (Thom Sessa) to escort his American wife Katherine (Emily Padgett, Side Show) while he negotiates a treaty.
A noted actor and singer in Thailand, Sukrit delivers an earnest, albeit stilted performance. He isn’t helped by a reedy singing voice that has him enunciating his way through Maltby’s prosaic lyrics set to Shire’s score, which is bland at best, but more often cloying.
Unfortunately, Sukrit enjoys little chemistry with Padgett, who plays the thankless role of a white goddess idolized by Noppon and his friends. Happily, she handles the part with ease and casual charm, demonstrating a crystalline soprano voice in the early ensemble number, “Dance,” at an embassy party, and later in “Work of Art,” the show’s dreary thematic reprise.
One of the Waterfall’s few bright spots is J. Elaine Marcos (Broadway's recent Annie revival) as Nuan, Katherine’s passively cynical servant, who disapproves of her mistress and her student interloper. The show’s other highlight is an inspired admonition, “America Will Break Your Heart,” sung to Noppon by his friends, Santi, Surin and Kumiko (Lisa Helmi Johanson), an American-born Japanese caught between two cultures. Johanson brims with an insouciance that brings needed spark to the show, making us half wish the plot would veer off and tell her story instead.
But sadly we’re stuck with Noppon, who is feverishly in love with Katherine, despite enjoying limited and mostly superficial conversation with her. It might make sense if Noppon were destined to wake up to the artificial nature of his love affair with the U.S., despite having never been there. Unfortunately, that’s not where Waterfall is headed. Instead, we get a one-way trip down lover’s lane with a couple that comes across as little more than polite friends.
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While Viravan may enjoy a vaunted theatrical reputation in his home country, his direction here is static, leaving the evening’s liveliest moments in the hands of co-director and choreographer Dan Knechtges (Lysistrata Jones), who features traditional Thai dance steps opposite western-style waltz numbers. Sasavat Busayabandh’s scenic design consists mainly of projections on sliding slats and a theme park-style waterfall.
But the show's main culprits are Maltby and Shire, who deliver a generic score and simplistic rhyme schemes to accompany the by-the-numbers melodrama. The first act ends with an amorous clutch in a waterfall, which feels like soft porn for geriatrics. And the second act closes with a deathbed scene, which makes it easy to guess what comes in between — the heartbreak of separation and a pair of cheap plot contrivances before the audience politely applauds and then enjoys the evening’s greatest pleasure: going home.
Cast: Emily Padgett, Bie Sukrit, Thom Sesma, J. Elaine Marcos, Eymard Cabling, Marcus Choi, Jordan De Leon, Steven Eng, Rona Figueroa, Kimberly Immanuel, Lisa Helmi Johanson, Kenway Hon Wai K. Kua, Leon Le, Colin Miyamoto, Koh Mochizuki, Celia Mei Rubin, Darryl Semira, Riza Takahashi, Kay Trinidad, Minami Yusui
Director: Tak Viravan
Music: David Shire
Book and lyrics: Richard Maltby, Jr.
Co-director/choreographer: Dan Knechtges
Set designer: Sasavat Busayabandh
Costume designer: Wade Laboissonniere
Lighting designer: Ken Billington
Sound designer: Dan Moses Schreier
Presented by: Pasadena Playhouse, 5th Avenue Theatre