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Regional Reviews: Seattle

A Waterfall Overflowing with Talent and Emotion
5th Avenue Theatre
Review by David Edward Hughes

J. Elaine Marcos and Laura Griffith
The incurably romantic among us (and I stand among them) have no choice but to embrace the nostalgic, bittersweet romance inherent in the new musical Waterfall, which just opened at the 5th Avenue Theatre following two weeks of previews.

Inspired by the beloved Thai novel "Beyond the Painting" by Siburapha, and a Thai musical of the same name, this version was in part conceived by noted Broadway lyricist/librettist/director Richard Maltby, Jr, who has here written artfully poignant lyrics set to haunting music by his composer collaborator David Shire (together as a team on such works as Starting Here, Staring Now, Closer than Ever, Baby and Big). One can acknowledge certain musical reminders of Pacific Overtures, The King and I, Flower Drum Song and Miss Saigon without that clouding judgement of Maltby and Shire's work, which is undeniably one of the best traditional Broadway scores in the past few decades.

Maltby Jr.'s book, which presumably hews closely to the novel, is engrossing to me in large part as a slice of history denied to most Americans. The 1930s were a time of rumblings and storms rising in the Asian cultures, a time when Siam became Thailand, and Japan began its inevitable march towards alliance with Italy and Germany into the devastation that was World War II. At its hardest hitting, the show depicts a harmless American-style nightclub being shut down by Japanese imperialist soldiers for being disrespectful to the tenets of the new regime (as they ransack the club, there are reminders of the Nazi intrusion into the engagement party for Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider in Cabaret or the pogrom at the wedding of Motel and Tzeitel in Fiddler on the Roof).

The central love story, set in both Siam and Japan from 1930-1945, is between rising young Thai diplomat Noppon (played by the handsome, charming Thai pop idol Bie Sukrit) and Katherine (a radiant, blonde-wigged Laura Griffith), the somewhat older American second wife of his superior Chao Khun Atikarn (the utterly compelling Thom Sesma). The tale gets very soapy at times, and leaves one too many clarifying story elements out, which might be easily included. Some at this point are not even hinted at. Full disclosure: I caught an early preview to watch the development of the show, and watched purely for entertainment value. Approximately 10 minutes had been shaven off by last night's opening, but the clarification, including a few song elements, and maybe another entire song for Katherine early on, or an establishing duet for she and her husband, is what is mostly missing from an otherwise savory evening.

The Noppon/Katherine brief encounter takes place at the Waterfall at Mitake, Japan, but the relationship goes on in a much different form later, due to the husband's pride and ability to subvert the love from going further. But the romance of such an event, even with an oddly matched pairing such as Noppon and Katherine, transcends even the plot holes, which I trust will be rectified in future revisions, for Broadway, if predictions prove true.

No one I think will argue that the scenic design by Sasavat Busayaband and projection design by Caite Hevner Kemp cast an incandescent spell of radiant beauty, fascinating locales, and better than life postcards of an Asia gone by, and that spell also encompasses Thai director/impresario Tak Viravan, co-director and choreographer Dan Knechtges, and musical director John McDaniel, who has ravishingly lovely Jonathan Tunick orchestrations to work from, played by a most accomplished orchestra.

However, the front-end loaded mega talented cast is what seals the deal. As Noppon, Sukrit is charismatic, easy on the eyes, and strong-voiced, and though I have heard him referred to as a Thai Justin Bieber, poor old Biebs would have to go a good ways to compete with this young man. Griffith has never been as well served, despite much accomplished work, in any other Seattle 5th Avenue role. Her character reminds us of a more vulnerable Katharine Hepburn sort of classy American lady, at sea in the Orient, and her limpid voice falls like blossoms on the ears. The two are winningly playful together in the climactic waterfall scene (running water available for splashing and cavorting), and both performers have the most richly emotional songs in the show, with each stating their separate feelings as to cultural identity ("I Am Not/I Will Be Thai") and then in shimmering romantic strains ("One Day", "No One Will Know", "You Cannot Tell Me Not to Love You", "I See Him" "Watercolor," and "Once You Fall in Love" among them). In these songs, Shire, masterful tunesmith of the Oscar winning "It Goes Like it Goes", "Starting Here, Starting Now", and "Patterns", just to name a few, is at his zenith, though his score is in a flavor and style far from these, yet just as winning.

Thom Sesma, as the aging husband, is the brightest star in the show's rich cast, and his featured song "My Wife, Katherine" is probably the most touching in the score. Sesma is merely magisterial, with a dream of a voice, and despite curiosities in the depiction of his motivations as written, this actor wins our hearts as perhaps the most principled hero in the story.

In the "She would run off with the show if she had more to do" department comes a twinkling talented lass named J. Elaine Marcos as the couple's servant Nuan who moves from sharp-tongued (if through clench teethed) opponent of Griffith's brashly American traits to a staunch ally when times get rough, and her heartfelt "One Day" reprise is goose-bump beautiful. Another supporting stand-out is Lisa Helmi Johanson as Japanese/American Kumiko, a firecracker of a displaced figure who runs the American Swing Club, and she sells the heck out of the two big American-style songs, the presentational "United States of Japan" and he sarcastic book number "America Will Break Your Heart," also featuring the amusing and energetic Jordan DeLeon and Colin Miyamoto as Yoshi and Koh.

Darker figures born out of the shifts in Japanese and Thai policies are the barely polite Japanese Prime Minister Takamoto, played with cold resolve by the impressive Steven Eng, and the Japanese loyalist Thai Ambassador, played by Ryan Kim. All these songs highlight Maltby, Jr.'s undiminished clever yet not cutesy or calculated skills as a lyricist.

Dan Knechtges' choreography combines pageantry, show-bizzy strutting, classic Japanese posing, and American swing dance with versatility. Costume designer Wade Laboissonniere is responsible for much color and textural wizardry in that area, Ken Billington's lighting design is ideally suited to the production, and Dan Moses Schreier's sound design is among the best on display at the 5th Avenue ever.

Waterfall may be one of several Asian-themed musicals bound for Broadway at this time, glory be. Despite easily correctable textual flaws and an occasional lagging pace, I give a ringing GTG ½ (Good Thing Going +/3 ½ star).

Waterfall continues at the 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle, through October 25, 2015. For tickets or information contact the 5th Avenue box office at 206-625-1900 or visit them online at

Photo: Tracy Martin

- David Edward Hughes

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