The 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle is hosting a cross-cultural musical called “Waterfall,” based on a best-selling Thai novel and featuring one of Thailand’s biggest music stars.
Can a splashy romantic musical set in Thailand and Japan, featuring one of Southeast Asia’s biggest celebrities, become an American hit?
That’s the goal for “Waterfall,” starring Thai pop star Bie Sukrit. Currently in previews at 5th Avenue Theatre, it opens to the press on Thursday, Oct. 15, and closes Oct. 25.
Guiding forces behind this cross-cultural venture (which debuted to mixed reviews at L.A.’s Pasadena Playhouse this summer) are the veteran Broadway team of writer Richard Maltby Jr. and composer David Shire, and co-director Tak Viravan, a leading Thai impresario who bridges Broadway and Bangkok.
Book and lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr., music by David Shire. Through Oct. 25 at 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle (206-625-1900 or 5thavenuetheatre.org).
“We are taking a risk,” explained the U.S.-educated Viravan. “We’re trying to combine the best of America, Thailand and Japan in one piece that’s respectful to all cultures, and have it make sense to both American and Asian audiences.”
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With co-producer Jack M. Dalgleish, author Maltby and stage-screen composer Shire, Viravan set about creating for U.S. consumption an English-language version of “Behind the Painting,” a prominent Thai novel by Sri Burapha. (A Broadway run is possible, but not imminent.)
Set in the 1930s, the novel concerns a young Thai man, Noppon, who falls in love with a married, aristocratic Thai woman he meets while studying in Japan.
“We thought if we made the woman the American wife of a Thai diplomat, it opened the story to the huge political and cultural changes going on between the two world wars,” reported Maltby, whose many credits range from “Ain’t Misbehavin’” to “Miss Saigon.” “ It was a time when American culture, our movies and songs and dances, were sweeping Japan, before the hard-liners who came into power banned American influences.”
“Noppon is very excited about being modern, and feeling the Western winds blowing,” Viravan added. “We also see what’s happening then in Siam, as it becomes Thailand.”
Captivated in his youth by a touring version of “The Sound of Music,” the adult Viravan became a Broadway investor, and opened his own spacious theater in Bangkok. It introduced Western-style musicals, Broadway classics and new shows to Thailand.
Shire (Maltby’s collaborator on Broadway’s “Baby” and other works), said his “Waterfall” score blends traditional Thai and Japanese motifs, with American jazz. “The fun was trying to integrate yet contrast all these different musical aesthetics. The trick was to capture the cultures and not exploit them, but make it all palatable for American audiences.”
“Thai people who’ve seen the show were surprised how close the Thai music was to the real thing,” said Maltby. “Katherine, the American love interest, is entranced with Thai culture, and Noppon with American culture. The music is like a metaphor going back and forth between them.”
Viravan hand-picked the “Waterfall” male lead in advance. In 2006, Sukrit was runner-up on “The Star” — a Thai TV talent contest Viravan also produces.
Now a pop artist and TV actor described by Maltby as “the Justin Bieber of Thailand” (without the bad boy antics), Sukrit performs opposite a new leading lady in Seattle: frequent 5th Avenue star Laura Griffith.
In Pasadena, “Waterfall” was praised for its opulent production values. But it also received stinging criticism, particularly for its book, deemed “clicheed” and “banal” by some reviewers.
Maltby agrees that the story needed an overhaul, and more of the topical/historical elements he has since added. “We decided the show was nice, but not anywhere big enough, deep enough, complex enough. We basically rewrote the whole thing.”
“It wasn’t edgy enough,” seconded Viravan. “ In L.A. it was just a forbidden love story. Now there’s a lot of heart, but a lot more politics and culture in the show too.”