Written in 1951, Lerner and Loewe’s gold rush musical is full of intriguing contrasts. Reflective of both the time it was set and the time it was written, it contains some troubling gender politics, but it is also a show in which love and the land are celebrated. It feels like this is why Gemma Bodinetz has chosen it to open the Liverpool Everyman Company’s second repertory season.
Probably best known now for the (heavily revised) film version made in the dying days of the studio system (in which Clint Eastwood valiantly attempts to sing), Paint Your Wagon is set in 1850s California.
Miner Ben Rumson (Patrick Brennan) strikes lucky and founds a town in which his young daughter Jennifer (Emily Hughes) is the only woman among 400 men. This is a source of consternation for the prospectors, who fret over their proximity to a pubescent girl and plead with Ben to send her back east to school. Jennifer even has a song, What’s Goin’ On Here?, in which she innocently questions why the men behave so oddly in her presence. She later becomes besotted with Mexican miner Julio (Marc Elliott), but life conspires to keep them apart.
It’s a sprawling show with a large number of characters. They are all played by the 14-strong company. Bodinetz subverts some of the more problematic aspects of the musical by having the male and female company members cross dress, donning stained union suits to play the miners and corsets and feathers to play the women coached in to work in the local bordello.
This bare-boards production is staged in-the-round with the band located in a covered wagon. It’s not a show of big numbers – Wandrin’ Star, an ode to wanderlust and the lure of the frontier, is the most famous – but there’s an endearingly grounded quality to the writing, stuffed as it is with songs about cans of beans and the hardness of winters out west.
Some of the vocal performances are variable, but everyone throws themselves into things with gusto. Brennan isn’t the strongest singer (though Lord knows, nor was Lee Marvin) but he has warmth and gruff charm as Ben, while Hughes has a fine voice as his daughter, smoothly morphing from pigtailed child to a more refined young woman. Emma Bispham also impresses as the ‘spare’ wife of a passing Mormon who ends up being sold as one might sell a cow or a sack of corn.
Bodinetz kicked off the Everyman Company’s inaugural season with Fiddler on the Roof, a musical as much about displacement and migration as it is about love and marriage. Paint Your Wagon is also full of interesting undercurrents about the shaping of communities and the way women are treated as property in a money-hungry society. It makes an exciting jumping-off spot for this second year of the Everyman’s repertory system.