Gemma MacLean, as Annie Oakley, heads a cast of strong performers in this energetic and innovative production of the classic Irving Berlin musical, Annie Get Your Gun. Packed with old-fashioned, fabulous songs, it bounces through a dramatic retelling of a true story from the frontier days of America.
You can’t shoot a man in the tail, like a quail. No you can’t get a man with a gun!
Annie Get Your Gun, with original lyrics and score by the great Irving Berlin, was first produced on Broadway in 1946. It starred Ethel Merman in the title role. This version at The Union Theatre was revised by Peter Stone for the 1999 Broadway production with Bernadette Peters. Now there is a new star in the title role: Gemma MacLean.
McLean struts into the performance space and mesmerises, with not only the strength and quality of her singing, but also her charismatic acting and energetic delivery. She never misses a beat throughout, and the audience forgives the jarring narrative of this feisty woman,lessening herself for the sake of a pretty face, on the basis of her sincerity and commitment.
The pretty face belongs to her on-stage beau, Frank Butler, here played by Blair Robertson. Robertson certainly has the looks and vocal qualities needed for the role, but is overthrown in the acting department by his Annie. The audience needs to believe that Frank is good enough to have Annie follow him anywhere and Robertson is not convincing enough.
Holding their own in performance skills are the trio of adult actors who play children, the younger siblings of Annie. Particularly delightful is Lawrence Guntert who inhabits the skin of a young boy playing with his toy train whenever he can. Not that Sarah Day as Nellie and Chanai Ankrah who plays Jessie aren’t good in their roles, they just weren’t quite as winsome.
Lala Barlow plays Frank’s assistant, Dolly Tate, as perfectly nauseating, as the character requires. Whilst the role has no designated singing solo, Barlow is a positive force in production numbers like the opening There’s No Business Like Show Business.
Playing Buffalo Bill, with warmth and enthusiasm, is Mark Pollard. The role gives Pollard the opportunity to flex his singing muscles but also to advance the narrative. This is also true too of the company manager, Charlie Davenport, who is played by newcomer Dafyyd Lansley. Lansley seems a little young for the role but shows talent nevertheless.
Juvenile leads Winnie Tate and Tommy Keeler share two duets that, in this version of the show, are augmented by the ensemble. Both songs highlight the superb choreography of Ste Clough. Clough adds innovative touches in spacing and timing. He uses a slow motion effect for the background dancers that is akin to a shadow effect. The hand movements of I’ll Share It All With You are also a joy.
Dominic Harbison is lovely as Tommy and is vocally strong; however, Georgia Conlan, as his girlfriend Winnie, is not as secure in her pitch, especially in early numbers. The duet Who Do You Love? I Hope was the best from the pair.
The ensemble all sing and dance with energy, style and skill making the big production numbers of the show a delight in harmony and well executed dance. Aneurin Pascoe handled both his roles with aplomb. Pascoe opened the show as Foster Wilson, credited with discovering Annie Oakley, and closed as showman Pawnee Bill.
The band, under the direction of musical director Alex Bellamy suits the rambunctious melodies of Irving Berlin. A jarring note was the treatment of My Defences are Down. The number features very interesting dance but the melody and tone of the original treatment has been hardened almost beyond recognition and gains nothing from the change.
‘Let’s put a show on in the barn’ was a catch phrase of the old black and white movies starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney and it appears to have been adopted by director Kirk Jameson and designer Amy Watts. Simplicity is the key to this production even if the original shows in the barn ended up the standard of a full blown stage show. The ethic suits this piece and serves the space and the narrative well. Innovative use of curtains and ladders offer interesting notes and the brace of birds made from hessian are fabulous.
Annie Get Your Gun is an old fashioned musical that may not be well known by younger audiences who will be surprised when they recognize standards like There’s No Business Like Show Business, Doin’ What Comes Naturally and Anything You Can Do came from here. There is contemporary relevance in recognizing old standards of sexism and racial bias that prevail over the years.
The real charm of Annie Get Your Gun will always lie in the music. This production is a superb setting for the music with its star performances and wonderful dancing.