The new musical Waterfall is trying really hard.
The show is about Siam as it transitions to being Thailand, so it's trying to differentiate itself from The King and I, a revival of which is currently playing an acclaimed run on Broadway. Speaking of Broadway, Waterfall is trying to transfer there — the production at the Pasadena Playhouse is intended as a pre-Broadway trial run. The show is also trying to not be as racist as most other musicals about Asia (see: Miss Saigon, the writers' last foray into Southeast Asia).
It succeeds on the first and last counts — but don't count on a Broadway transfer anytime soon.
The first act of the show is promising. After a clunky introduction song, the plot follows Noppon (Bie Sukrit, a Thai pop star), a young man from Siam, studying abroad in Japan. Noppon is obsessed with America, and soon becomes obsessed with the ambassador's wife, Katherine (Emily Padgett), a beautiful American. While the focus is mostly on the romance between Noppon and Katherine, the book (by Richard Maltby, who also wrote the lyrics) occasionally veers off on historical tangents, showing the sometimes-tense atmosphere in early-1930s Japan.
While musicals about history can be interesting, Waterfall is most compelling when it leaves the focus on Noppon and his friends rather than on pre–World War II politics. Despite some pitch problems, Sukrit is utterly winning, skillfully shouldering a musical in his second language and hitting the show's comedic beats with ease. Similarly, his friends (Jordan De Leon, Colin Miyamoto and Lisa Helmi Johanson) are vivacious and entertaining, and their number "America Will Break Your Heart" is probably the most adeptly written song, combining social consciousness with pointed humor.
Things take a turn for the dreary in the second act, which feels unnecessary — the story is pretty neatly wrapped up by the Act I finale. Waterfall's second half is mostly about dying and how evil Japan was in the mid to late 1930s. For historical context, the audience would be better served by visiting the small exhibit the Pasadena Playhouse has put in one of the theater's lobbies. The score in the second act also features too many songs that sound like cheap Sondheim knockoffs, which are not the composer's strong suit. David Shire is a talented composer, and as far as most of the show is concerned, it's refreshing to hear a new work that doesn't sound like every other new, Sondheim-aping score — his best songs are stylistically similar to the more classic musicals.
Visually, the show is beautiful. The scenic design, by Sasavat Busayabandh, is lushly evocative without being overbearing, and the titular set piece is stunning. The choreography, by Dan Knechtges (who shares directing duties with Tak Viravan), is also striking, borrowing imagery from Thai, Japanese and American culture.
Beauty isn't enough to save a show, though, and Waterfall still doesn't feel ready for public consumption, given how much of a drag the second act is.
Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; through June 28. (626) 356-7529, pasadenaplayhouse.org.
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