Emily Padgett and Bie Sukritin in Waterfall, directed by Tak Viravan and Dan Knechtges, at Pasadena Playhouse.
Emily Padgett and Bie Sukrit in Waterfall, directed by Tak Viravan and Dan Knechtges, at Pasadena Playhouse.
(© Jim Cox)

The Broadway-bound musical Waterfall could be the first collaboration on the Great White Way from the composing team of David Shire and Richard Maltby Jr. since Big in 1996. Collaborating with Thai director Tak Viravan and Tony-nominated choreographer and director Dan Knechtges, Maltby and Shire have written a score combining Thai influences and 1930s American jazz.

Based on the hit Thai novel (and subsequent movie) Behind the Painting by Thai activist Kulap Saipradit (pseudonym Siburapha), Waterfall sets star-crossed lovers in the countries of Siam and Japan as the Great Japanese Empire prepares for war against America in the '30s. Noppon (Bie Sukrit), a Thai student studying in Tokyo, falls in love with Katherine (Emily Padgett), the American wife of a Thai diplomat, Chao Khun Atikarn (Thom Sesma). Chao, an elderly and time-consumed man, pushes his wife and the student together as social companions. However, their friendship soon turns into a flirtation, and they eventually submit to their urges under a mountain waterfall.

Maltby's book allows for several dualities that could have enriched the characters. Instead of having Katherine and Noppon as youngsters in love betraying the older statesman husband, there are actually two May/December romances. Besides the age difference between Katherine and Chao, Noppon is in his early 20s and Katherine reveals she is 35. There are additional layers to each of the characters that deserve more than a passing comment. However, Maltby does not focus enough on those complications and closes the door on adding some much-needed conflict to the story.

Maltby and Shire's score is appealing, but unmemorable. Though some of the melodies are rhapsodic, as a whole, the score sounds like it could easily have been written in the late '40s as a Rodgers & Hammerstein spawn (without being nearly as memorable).

Bie Sukrit captures Noppon's youthful exuberance and adulation for his first love, but Sukrit's singing voice strains when the songs reach higher notes, and his overall timbre lacks heft. Padgett has a lovely singing voice. Her heartfelt portrayal of a woman caught between both cultures and men makes many of her scenes pop. Sesma is commanding as the wise diplomat who, in his desire to make everyone content, finds situations spinning out of control. Steven Eng is menacing as Foreign Minister Takamoto, and J. Elaine Marcos and Lisa Helmi Johanson are both hilarious in supporting roles.

Sasavat Busayabandh's sets are arresting. A watercolor motif is used to tie set designs, lighting, and storyline. Busayabandh's contribution includes sliding parchments that contain Caite Hevner Kemp's projections and a fully operational waterfall. Ken Billington's lighting captures the moods of the characters and the utopia of Noppon and Katherine's favorite place on Mount Mitake. Wade Laboissonniere's costumes include flavors of the orient, from silk kimonos to authentic Thai theater attire, similar to those worn in The King and I. Codirector Knechtges' choreography contains lovely waltzes, traditional Thai dance movements, and an eye-catching dance for the young lovers during a pivotal scene.

Waterfall has engaging moments with a universal story. It is a visual feast. Marrying Thai and American cultures as well as those countries' talents, has created something unique and admirable. However, it has a ways to go with its score and book before it plunges into Broadway.