Review: Paint Your Wagon at Liverpool Everyman ****
Given it’s almost 70 years since Lerner and Loewe penned Paint Your Wagon, it’s had relatively few stage outings – certainly compared to other musicals of the time.
Meanwhile the 1969 film, best-known for Lee Marvin singing Wand’rin' Star, strays so far from the path of the original plot in its search for movie gold that people who have only seen the big screen version will find they’re watching practically a different story on stage.
So we come to this revival, opening the Everyman Rep’s 2018 programme as Fiddler on the Roof opened last season, with no real baggage or expectations apart from having a good time.
And the company has certainly pulled out all the stops and then some in a show with get-up-and-go, and one that proves there is gold in them there hills if you look for it.
Perpetually wandering prospector Ben Rumson (Patrick Brennan) accidently strikes the shiny stuff in the fertile soils of California, and a ragtag town of misfits and miners soon grows up on the back of his claim.
There’s just one problem – it’s a town of 400 men and one woman, Rumson’s ingenue tomboy daughter Jennifer (Emily Hughes), and it causes no end of strife as she reminds them of the comforts their itinerant frontier life denies them.
Emily Hughes (Jennifer) and Marc Elliott (Julio) in Paint Your Wagon. Photos: Jonathan Keenan
Jennifer, oblivious to the implications of this gender imbalance, subsequently falls for Mexican miner Julio (Marc Elliott), a charming dreamer and an outsider among outsiders. But can true love ever win the day?
And what happens when more women arrive – but the gold runs out?
Set in the round, and with minimal props, Paint Your Wagon is all about physical storytelling, and it’s packed with movement. The Broadway original was choreographed with lengthy dance numbers, which bordered on ballet, propelling the narrative and echoing Lerner and Loewe’s earlier production Brigadoon.
The Everyman Rep is of course, first and foremost, a company of actors rather than triple threat musical theatre performers.
And it means while this production, which is bursting with energy, is similarly dance-driven, choreographer Tom Jackson Greaves’ routines are delivered with a slightly homespun, rough-around-the-edges feel, which actually adds depth and truth to the image of these characters as rough and ready gold prospectors.
Paint Your Wagon. Pic by Jonathan Keenan
Last year director Gemma Bodinetz had her cast playing across genders, and with the population of Rumson far exceeding the 14 ensemble actors, there’s even more of that this time around.
Sexless baggy grey onesie underwear helps to blur the lines, so it feels quite natural for the female actors to play miners. Meanwhile in the second half, the newly-arrived Fandango showgirls are a peacocking chorus which includes both womanly curves and full-on beards – and no, not on the same dancers.
The ensemble is impressively strong, with some lovely vocal harmonising, as well as some good solo singing performances, all buoyed by robust work from musical director George Francis and his band (playing from inside a wagon on high) and which bodes well for the remainder of the season.
And while it seems churlish to pick out some performances and not others, Emma Bispham, new to the company this year, shines as reluctant Mormon wife Elizabeth, while Hughes continues to impress.
Keddy Sutton (Sarah), Emma Bispham (Elizabeth) and Richard Bremmer (Jacob)
Brennan fills the stage with his presence as larger-than-life character Ben, returning to muddled patriarch duties after playing Tevye last year.
And Richard Bremmer, another returner, looks authentic enough to have stepped straight out of a 19th century daguerreotype as Mormon Jacob Woodling, while he channels his inner Dot Cotton in Fandango basque and skirt.
Meanwhile the book is a lot warmer and funnier than you might imagine, with the well-delivered comedy helping to take the edge off outrageous situations like a woman being auctioned off to the highest bidder as if she is simply one more possession to be bartered.
Sometimes it feels a little too frenetic – there’s a lot of running in and out up and down stairs – and it takes a little time for the story to bed in.
But the Everyman set out to breathe new life in to an old classic, and it’s done that in spades.