Review: Paint Your Wagon (Liverpool Everyman)

Twelve months ago the Everyman’s new repertory company began their inaugural season with a crowd-pleasing musical, Fiddler On The Roof. It was a tremendous success, and now this year’s company (including some familiar faces from last year, plus some new ones) are hoping to repeat the trick by starting their season with another boisterous musical, Lerner and Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon. And they’ve surely pulled it off – this is a very entertaining show.

The setting is mid-19th century California. It’s the gold rush era, and when miner Ben Rumson and his tomboy teenage daughter Jennifer come across some of the elusive precious metal they claim the land and set up the town of Rumson. Hordes of prospectors descend on the settlement (cue one of the first songs, the rumbustious I’m On My Way) and before long Rumson’s population has risen to 400, though Jennifer is the only woman. Jake, one of the prospectors, decides the town needs a dance hall and brings in a group of good-time girls – played by almost the entire company, including the male actors – whose arrival is heralded by another musical highpoint, There’s A Coach Comin’ In. Meanwhile Jennifer has fallen for Julio, who because he’s Mexican can only work on the outskirts of town. Other notable characters include Jacob Woodling, a Mormon with two wives – a comical trio whose dysfunctional marital set-up garners many laughs. Jacob agrees to sell one of his wives to the highest bidder and Elizabeth is bought by Ben, much to his daughter’s disgust. The second half of the show takes us forward another year, and we discover what happens to Rumson’s inhabitants, their aspirations and their relationships, and the town itself.

It’s a colourful story which, while full of humour and high spirits, is not without its sadder moments and offers food for thought on such issues as the American Dream, migration, attitudes towards women and the ill-treatment of indigenous populations. Gemma Bodinetz’s skillful direction handles these themes intelligently, ensuring they’re not missed. The cast are excellent, with strong performances from Patrick Brennan as Ben, a caring father who misses his late wife and is trying to do his best, and Emily Hughes as his strongwilled daughter. Richard Bremmer is superb as both one of the prospectors and the frequently exasperated Jacob (he sings well too), and Marc Elliott is a sympathetic Julio. Paul Duckworth is so convincing as shrewd store owner Salem he could have stepped out of a John Ford western. There are some memorable songs, including of course Ben’s Wanderin’ Star (a No.1 hit for Lee Marvin in 1970), where he touchingly reflects on his nomadic existence. Not all of the cast are natural singers, and it’s a pity one or two of those with strong singing voices  – including Liam Tobin (who plays the prospector Bull) and Emma Bispham (Elizabeth) – don’t get more opportunity to demonstrate their vocal ability. But, with titles such as Hand Me Down That Can O’Beans and Whoop-Ti-Ay!, a succession of vigorously performed numbers ensures the show’s high energy never flags. A live band at the back of the stage, vibrant costumes and some well choreographed ensemble dances all add to the spectacle.

The standing ovation from an enthusiastic audience at the show’s end confirmed that, after last year’s triumphs, the Everyman repertory company looks to have again struck gold.

**** Saddle up and head off to the Everyman for this very enjoyable show

Photos: ©Jonathan Keenan

Paint Your Wagon continues at the Liverpool Everyman until Saturday 31 March, with further performances on selected dates in May, June and July.