It was 1946 when Ethel Merman made a hit out of Irving Berlin’s score for Annie Get Your Gun. Now, 70 years on, Paul Foster has revived the musical at Sheffield. While Berlin’s tunes have endured the decades effortlessly, that is less true of the book, which has built-in racism and apparent misogyny. But not even Berlin’s tunes can survive this mis-cast, shockingly mis-directed wet blanket of a production which smothers every bit of life the show has to offer. Even if your defences are down, you can’t say it’s wonderful.
Under Daniel Evans, the Crucible Theatre at Sheffield saw some outstanding productions of musicals: My Fair Lady, Show Boat and Oliver! among them. Robert Hastie is now Artistic Director at Sheffield and Annie Get Your Gun is the first full scale musical production on his watch. It disappoints in every way.
One of the hallmarks of the Evans era at Sheffield was the consistent way classic works were given new bursts of life through well thought through and well performed revivals. Style and skill in equal measure ensured that resources were used wisely and wonderfully, and that, certainly in the three productions named above, casting was exemplary, with performances that were fresh and vital in productions that really worked.
A key ingredient in all three of those great revivals, as well as in other revivals at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and The Sound of Music, the choreography of Alistair David has been vital. Clever, intricate and surprising routines that had a resonance, a deep connection, an overall sensibility that properly reflected situation, character and the core of the show, both musically and narratively: this was one of the distinguishing and elevating characteristics of David’s work.
For reasons which can’t be identified simply by watching the performance, however, David has adopted a completely different style for Annie Get Your Gun. There is no cohesive style, no sense of the time or setting of the musical at work in the choreography. No. Quite the contrary. David’s choreography is completely disconnected to the period and the performances – it just exists in its own curious and overtly camp aesthetic.
More than anything else, the choreography here looks like something you might see on a television variety show. A grab-bag of twists and twirls, beats and bevels, sashays and swishes, often the routines look like the Cagelles are doing a send-up country and western number, rather than giving a sense of the wild and dangerous arenas that were frontier America or cut-throat show business New York in the late 19th Century.
It’s not that the company don’t do the choreography justice – they do – it’s just that doing the choreography justice underlines its inherent inappropriateness. Only Matthew Malthouse managed to execute the steps while maintaining the deception that he was performing in Annie Get Your Gun. Everyone else, undeniably talented, went with the flow.
There are two key differences between Annie Get Your Gun and earlier successful Sheffield musicals: Evans is not a guiding force, either as director or company Arristic Director, and Paul Foster is at the helm. Whatever the reason, David’s considerable talents have not been marshalled in the correct direction.
Annie Get Your Gun was an original work in 1946, the product of a fruitful partnership between Dorothy and Herbert Fields (book) and Irving Berlin (music and lyrics). It was very much a work of its time and when it was revived in 1999 (for Bernadette Peters on Broadway) Peter Stone revised the book, cutting two numbers on the grounds of cultural insensitivity.
One of those, Colonel Buffalo Bill, opened the show in 1946. It is the perfect opening number for this show, briskly establishing the period, the tone and the excitement inherent in this musical about sharpshooters, frontier folk, racism, forbidden love and the roar of the crowd and the smell of the circus sawdust. Masculine and energetic, Colonel Buffalo Bill evokes completely the sense of “Boys Own Adventures” which is the background for the story of the rise of Annie Oakley. Replace the offending lyrics by all means, but the song is a corker.
Stone inserted There’s No Business Like Show Business as the opening number and sought to construct the piece as a “show within a show” story. Foster sticks with the 1999 opening but there is no sense of a “show within a show”. The result is that the benefits of Stone’s chief revisions are lost; and a lot more too.
Although There’s No Business Like Show Business is now a standard, ubiquitous and loved, its role in the show for which Berlin wrote it is singular: it is the dramatic and musical means by which Annie is convinced to give up the frontier and to take up the uncertain world of Show Business. Done properly, it can be thrilling.
Having that number open the show completely undermines its ability to achieve that thrilling height, and without the “show within a show” conceit setting up the Wild West showmanship which is the spine of the narrative, Annie Get Your Gun can only start with a whimper, rather than the bang it needs. And not even having the benefit of the best voice in the company (Ben Lewis, in perfect bass baritone splendour) leading them in the tune can change that.
Foster does not seem to understand what makes Annie Get Your Gun work; nor does he find a way to mine the humour or the heart of the piece. Whole sections of the play give the audience nothing to enjoy. In the case of some performers, it is not for want of ability or effort: Nicolas Colicos is suitably exuberant and bluff as Buffalo Bill, with just the right sense of larrikin and gent; Timothy Quinlan is a marvellous spruiker and front man, Charlie Davenport; Matthew Malthouse is suitably splenetic as the opportunistic hotelier, Foster Wilson.
In part, the problems lie with the music, not as composed but as arranged and played. There are no strings and the support of twinkly keyboards is inapt for the task of letting Berlin’s melodies soar. There is not enough vigorous brass support either but, most egregiously, almost all the tempi is languid rather than emphatically energised.
Berlin’s score pulses with strong, passionate beats; it doesn’t skip along daintily or with the lightness of fairy dust. But this all seems news to musical director Paul Herbert. For a score that was rightly hailed as one where “all the tunes are hits”, Herbert manages to make all of the tunes here seem like misses. It is a singular achievement.
In a way, the overall impression is that none of the creatives particularly believe in Annie Get Your Gun and all seek to sidestep that fear. Perhaps that is because the show is, unfairly, tagged as irredeemably racist and anti-women. Stone’s 1999 revisions largely deal with those notions, although unpalatable references to tepees and stolen oil remain.
What the show needs is a trio of female characters who play their roles with heart and irony. If you play Annie, and sisters Dolly and Winnie, knowingly, beguilingly and intelligently, they will all run rings around the men, proving that actually anything the men can do, they can do better.
That doesn’t happen here. The choices for Dolly and Winnie are obvious and dull, leaving the actors little ground to achieve anything. Lauren Hall fares best and she has good support from Cleve September whose Tommy Keeler is hopelessly in love with her. Maggie Service is miscast as Dolly, the haughty faux-Downton aura she tries to strike being at odds with her unflattering barrell girl costumes.
As Annie, Anna-Jane Casey is loud, obvious and overcooked. The role does not give Casey the chance to dance, her most impressive skill, and her voice is unequal to the some of the beautiful melodic passages Berlin wrote for the character. Casey is not guided to play the different levels of Annie’s spirit; she stomps around with energy, a fake bovine laugh, and other surface accoutrements of hillbilly nonsense, but fails to open up Annie’s heart and instinctive brilliance. It might be the performance Foster required, but it doesn’t hit the right target.
Which leaves Lewis with no room to manoeuvre. Frank Butler is a vain, insufferable, pretty boy lothario with few redeeming features. Laughing at him is one of the pleasures of the show. Dropping his signature song, I’m A Bad Bad Man, merely detracts from Lewis’ ability to play Butler’s extremes.
It is because Butler is handsome but shallow that the relationship with Annie works. She loves him even though she sees through him and is his superior. He is too stupid to see what Annie represents. The joy in both characters is seeing how their union, desired by both but with neither apparently willing to do what it takes to seal the deal, is eventually achieved.
Despite what the song says, Annie can get her man with a gun. In the original version she does it by not using one when she could; in Stone’s revision she wins when Butler misfires his for her sake. Either way, Annie gets what she wants and Frank has to become something hitherto he has not been. The whole show, viewed and played properly, can be about women succeeding, triumphing in a man’s world, at a cost they decide is worth paying.
Foster brings none of this to the fore and unfairly leaves Casey to flounder in caricature. His misjudgment cripples the possibilities Annie Get Your Gun offers. Casey’s best work comes in her scenes with Karl Seth’s calm, wise and sardonic Sitting Bull; there might be too much angst in these scenes but they do strike as real and warm.
Nothing about Laura Hopkins’ unimaginative and flimsy scenic design supports the production: makeshift does not invoke showmanship. The costumes are a curious mismatch too, and few of them do anything for anyone wearing them. The cast do a sterling job of doin’ what comes naturally, trying to overcome all of the obstacles Foster’s production puts in their way.
The trouble is that Annie Get Your Gun is not natural – it is stylish fun that should prove the spirit of There’s No Show Business Like Show Business true. Foster seems to be intent on proving the opposite.