"Paint Your Wagon" is an oddly wholesome, cheerful Gold Rush musical about 400 lonely, sex-starved men in a California mining camp and a Mormon's second wife who happily gets auctioned off to a stranger. The song that goes with the sale is titled, if I'm not mistaken, "Whoop-Ti-Ay."
And that's just the first act of this peculiar 1951 demi-hit that Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe wrote between "Brigadoon" and "My Fair Lady." In the second half, six dance-hall gals -- delicately identified in the program as "fandango ladies" -- are decorously passed around the horny guys without any of them getting cranky.
Oh, lighten up, you say. And I say OK. The musical, lovingly semi-staged by New York City Center Encores! through Sunday, is a peculiar but never boring relic of musical-theater history. Several of the songs -- including "They Call the Wind Maria" and "Another Autumn" -- are hauntingly beautiful (and movingly performed by one of the background miners, Nathaniel Hackmann).
In fact, the entire cast is vocally splendid -- including Keith Carradine as the whiskered old widower with the honest low twang, Alexandra Socha ("Fun Home") as his budding 16-year-old daughter and Justin Guarini ("American Idol") as her love, a shunned Mexican gentleman displaced from what was once his nation's land.
Director Marc Bruni ("Beautiful: The Carole King Musical") brings out the humanity and plays down the eyebrow-raising plot points. In this adaptation, the dad doesn't die after singing "Wand'rin' Star," which I guess was considered too much of a downer for a pleasant night at Encores!
There is much yearning in the songs and in the pent-up dances (by Denis Jones by way of Agnes de Mille) for the strapping, hunky fellows. A few actors, including Carradine, strum guitars and pick banjos, and the male chorus sings in stirring unisons.
No one carried a score, which isn't always the case with Encores! But the production is less elaborate than many in this series, with just some rough planks and the poetic outline of pine trees against a glowing sky. As a Lerner and Loewe prelude to Broadway's upcoming "Gigi," it offers just enough enlightening gold dust from our musical Golden Age.
WHAT "Paint Your Wagon"
WHERE New York City Center, 131 W. 55th St., through Sunday
INFO $30-$115; 212-581-1212; nycitycenter.org
BOTTOM LINE Loving semi-staged revival of peculiar show