The new musical “Waterfall’ by veteran Broadway writers Richard Maltby and David Shire is an extremely mixed bag, both moving and enchanting and simultaneously flat and disappointing. This production is a collaboration between American and Asian theatrical artists, critical for a story set in Bangkok and Tokyo between 1933 and 1945. It is an adaptation of a Thai musical called “Behind the Painting” by Siburapha. I think there are some big problems with the story, but I’ll get to that later.
Noppon is a young man from Siam who is sent to Japan to serve as an assistant to a much older diplomat. Noppon is an earnest and ambitious man, and the last thing he would ever expect would be to fall in love with an American woman named Katherine. Even more unlikely since she is the wife of the much older Diplomat Chao Khun Atikarn. As he is very occupied with his professional duties, he asks Noppon to act as his wife’s companion, and on one very adventurous afternoon they climb high into the mountains, to a magnificent waterfall where they dance in front of the falling water and (at least for Noppon) fall deeply in love. Chao finds out and insists that he and his wife return to America, and that Noppon never see her again. Acknowledging that he cannot live in this pre-war Japanese society alone, Noppon returns to Siam (which is falling apart) and marries a different woman that he has known since childhood. Much later, after the death of Chao, Noppon will travel to America for one last reunion with Katherine, as she lies on her deathbed. Years later, in Siam (now Thailand) Noppon’s mother will discover a painting that she really doesn’t much like and would prefer to just dispose of. Not possible, given that it was done by Katherine, of the waterfall where they spent that enchanted day, and with dancers that only Katherine and Noppon will ever be able to see. It is a sweet, romantic and quite touching love story about two people who should have been together, and never were.
The physical production is absolutely beautiful. Scenic Designer Sasavat Busayabandh uses sliding panels with projections to seamlessly move us from one place, one country, to another. When the waterfall itself is revealed it’s stunning, as perfect as the memory of a perfect day like no other. Because the show moves around between Siam and Japan the costumes are critical in making us understand both the traditions and the modern, dangerously changing world. Costume Designer Wade Laboissonniere has created some gorgeous costumes, especially for the traditional Siamese dancers. Technical credits must also go to the Lighting Designer, Ken Billington and that brilliant Scenic Designer Sasavat Busayabandh.
Now, as for the performances. I thought Laura Griffith as the wife, Katherine was the most successful in the cast. Not only for her lovely singing voice, but for the depth she brought to a woman who has made some regrettable choices and feels that she cannot change any of them. As the young man who falls in love with her, I thought Bie Sukrit was very earnest and his delivery and singing voice very clear and attractive. Where he really fell short, however, was in giving us a sense that this meeting was destiny, that his life was forever changed by this woman. Partly, there simply wasn’t enough chemistry between the two of them, and partly it was because of story choices about what his character does after she leaves. I thought the Japanese-American dance hall owner Kumiko played by Lisa Helmi Johanson and the husband, Chao, played by Thom Sesma were also very effective. The Yamaguchi Sisters (Rona Figueroa, Kimberly Immanuel and Riza Takahashi) were extremely entertaining.
So why didn’t it all work? The center of this story is two people who discover that they should be together and make the decision not to be. All of the political upheaval of a disintegrating Siam and a globally conquest focused Japan really only served as distractions to the deeply human story of these two people. Beyond that, when Noppon returns to Siam rather than advancing his career in Japan, and marries a woman we really learn very little about, it diffuses so much of the story’s fireworks. Had he stayed in Japan only to discover that a career is no substitute for love, that you really can never go home again, it would have strengthened their late reunion and strengthened the central theme that true love cannot be ignored at the cost of a lifetime of regret. Beyond that, I had a real problem with the songs in this show. Every one of them seemed to stand on their own and there was never any sense of a melodic through-line for the show. Beyond that, the lyrics seemed altogether too simple and obvious. A few of the numbers were very, very beautiful, but I never felt like they really provided a backbone for the show as a whole. Finally, there was simply not a strong or deep enough connection between Noppon and Katherine to make us believe that this was a life-changing encounter, and when Noppon marries someone else it only reinforced the superficiality of their choices, and not the depth or consequence of their decisions.
“Waterfall” has all the makings of a sweet, romantic musical about love that exists in every period and in every place. It just isn’t finished. There was a lot that I really liked in this show, but I left the theater feeling like too much of it had been obscured, and that there was simply not enough authentic heart and passion at the center. There is a ton of talent both onstage and backstage, but the final result is tepid where it should be boiling.
PICTURED ABOVE: Noppon (Bie Sukrit) and Katherine (Laura Griffith) in Waterfall.
PHOTO BY: Tracy Martin