I can see the temptation. Fiddler on the Roof was a rousing fanfare to herald the arrival of last year’s Everyman Compann, the comeback after a long absence of a distinguished theatrical institution welcomed with song, dance and critical acclaim. So, to open season two, let’s find another musical and do it, in director Gemma Bodinetz’s words, “the Everyman Company way”.

I sort of wish she’d resisted the temptation. This adaptation of Lerner and Loewe’s 1951 Gold Rush western is indeed done in the Everyman Company way. Smart choreography swaps high-kicking for twisting physicality, turning the dancers into set dressing with lamps and laundry. Inventive staging includes soil pits embedded in the stage in which the miners dig for their yellow treasure. The cast take on multiple roles and identities with heart and gusto, making this feel like a bigger production than it actually is. The problem is that the rarely-performed Paint Your Wagon is rarely performed for a reason.

There are some nuggets of gold here; a couple of memorable tunes, of which Wandr’in’ Star is probably the best known, and some humour in places, of which the immensely likeable and exuberant cast make good use. But despite Bodinetz’s best efforts in her director’s note to superimpose themes of environmental degradation, women’s rights and indigenous dispossession, this is essentially a mainstream western musical about an undeveloped love story and the rise and fall of a prospecting town, imbued with the sexism both of its 19th century setting and its 1950s creation.

Gender-swapping actors attempt to subvert central themes of male lust and domination, signalling the Everyman’s non-endorsement of the script’s sexual politics, but the plot remains one in which women are sold, ogled or sit waiting for their man’s return. Which is not to say that there aren’t some great performances. Emily Hughes, a stand-out star of last year’s company, shines again as Jennifer, the lusted-over teenage daughter of miner and mayor Ben Rumson (Patrick Brennan). Former Eastenders and Holby City actor Marc Elliott, a newcomer to the Everyman, has a powerful singing voice and does a good job of making the Mexican Julio, a potentially cringe-worthy character, into a believable, likeable romantic interest.

But the production is at its most enjoyable when the company are on stage in force, belting out up-tempo numbers like I’m On My Way or performing Tom Jackson Greaves’ clever dance sequences. They are a collection of all-rounders, rather than specialist musical actors, and that shows in a few of the solo numbers, but as a group they are engaging and extremely watchable. Perhaps that is the Everyman Company way? I look forward to seeing them dig a little deeper. 

By Fran Yeoman

Main image by Jonathan Keenan

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Paint Your Wagon runs at Liverpool Everyman until July 14, 2018: www.everymanplayhouse.com