Oakley hits the target

donovan, Pace and Williams

Jason Donovan as Frank, Norman Pace as Buffalo Bill and Emma Williams as Annie

Annie Get Your Gun

New Alexandra Theatre

****

SHARPSHOOTING Annie Oakley finds there is no business like show business when she joins Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in this revival of Irving Berlin’s 1946 Broadway musical.

This particular outpost of the business is fun, lively and has some well-known standards by master songwriter Berlin, songs that most people recognise even if they have no idea which show they were from, and the sort of songs helping to drive the current fashion for revivals of shows from the golden age of musicals with the likes of Top Hat and Singin’ in the Rain.

The original had a book by brother and sister team Herbert and Dorothy Fields but this Ambassador Theatre Group production uses the 1999 Broadway revival with its revised book by Peter Stone which loses some of the songs and removes some of the perceived sexist and racist undertones which were acceptable in 1946 but are less so now. Native Americans being cheated out of oil rights on their reservations is not funny any more, for example.

It tells the story of a rural Ohio girl Annie Oakley who had to be a crackshot to kill enough game to feed her family and when Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show comes to town with world champion sharpshooter Frank Butler challenging the best shot in the county – she is the challenger.

Butler is played by 80's heartthrob Jason Donovan, who might be top billing on the marquee but the real star of the show is Emma Williams as Annie who shines as the rough and ready backwoodswoman turned superstar and has a voice which has everything from a gentle softness to theatre filling power and, as we see in Anything You Can Do, she can keep a note going for ever . . . or at least long enough to have the audience gasping for breath even if she wasn't.

She has the voice, personality and talent to make musical theatre her natural home with such songs as Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly, You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun and I’ve Got The Sun in the Morning, along with duets with Donovan including The Girl That I Marry and An Old Fashioned Wedding.

She outshines Donovan but that is hardly surprising, the whole show was originallyannie Oakley conceived and written by Dorothy Fields as a star vehicle for her friend Ethel Merman and the role of Frank is always secondary, which, Donovan, a well established musical theatre star, plays to perfection.

He is a seasoned performer these days, last seen in these parts in a moving performance as Tick in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, but in truth he is left with a part here which gives him little to play with; there is little scope for him to be  anything but Mr Nice Guy - even his walk out at Annie being given top billing is polite and refined.

Emma Williams seems right at home with a trusty rifle in her hands as Annie Oakley

Fly in the ointment is Dolly Tate, played by Kara Lane, Frank’s partner who wants him for herself, although, as the shelf she is left upon gets higher, it transpires she will accept substitutes in the shape of . . . well any man she can marry.

As a backstory we have her younger sister, Winnie (Lorna Want) who is banned by Dolly from marrying the love of her life, the show’s knifethrower Tommy (Yiftach Mizrahi) who is half Indian.

Running the show is Col William Cody, Buffalo Bill, played by Norman Pace who is carving out a stage career after his days in Hale and Pace and makes a good fist of the flamboyant showman assisted by Charlie Davenport (William Oxborrow) who manages the show and Chief Sitting Bull (Ed Currie) who throws in some nice one-liners.

Amid the rivalry in romance between Annie and Dolly there is also rivalry in show business with another wild west show run by Pawnee Bill (Dermot Canavan) and as it seems this world ain’t big enough for two wild west shows both are on their uppers but we all know that There is no Business Like Show Business, which opens and closes the show and appears twice in-between, so everything is bound to turn out all right in the end.

Music is provided by an excellent nine piece on stage band under musical director Stephen Ridley in a setting from Paul Farnsworth which gives us a big top with boxes and banners creating everything from a cattle boat to a night train in what would be the ring.

I particularly liked the huge curtain with the image of a train travelling across the stage for one change, and then clever lighting in the train scene to show the lights from the carriage windows flashing by on the side of the track at night.

Lighting from Jason Taylor and sound from Gregory Clarke, are both excellent, helped no doubt by a custom, brought in light and sound rig which should make for consistency through the tour.

There are also some well executed special effects, hardly earth shattering stuff, but Annie shooting apples in half, shattering bottles or bursting balloons, or Tommy’s knife throwing act all looked authentic which all helps in the make believe which is theatre

Director Ian Talbot keeps up a good pace and with rapid scene changes familiar tunes and good cast this is musical which ticks most of the boxes, but not quite.

Losing the 1946 opening song from Frank, I’m a Bad, Bad Man takes away his charisma as a dangerous, bad boy, womanising gunslinger, a charmer someone like Annie might instantly fall for. It takes away a bit of colour and depth to Donovan's character, which is a pity, while other changes in the 1999 version tend to sanitise rather than dramatise.

It misses that pizazz, that indefinable magic that lifts a show into the realms of being special  but that being said it is a good, solid, entertaining show with some fine performances, suitable for all the family, with good songs, an excellent cast and band all proving there really is no business like show business. To 05-07-14.

Roger Clarke

01-07-14

The musical is a highly fictionalised telling of Annie’s life. Annie, real name Phoebe Ann Moses was 15 when she took on Irish immigrant Frank in a shooting contest in Cincinnati in 1875 and won the $100 prize, worth more almost $2,200 today. The pair married the following year.

But it was not until 1885 that the by then successful double act joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. In declining health Annie, aged 66, died of pernicious anaemia in 1926; her distraught husband of 50 years, Frank,died 18 days later, aged 74.

 

Meanwhile shooting from the hip . . .

WHEN you are playing opposite a big star like Jason Donovan it pays to be good, and hot-shot Emma Williams is exactly that in this enjoyable Irving Berlin musical.

The pretty actress, of Casualty fame, is a delight as sharpshooter Annie Oakley who beats rival Frank Butler in a target competition and falls in love with him before having to survive a bout of jealousy.

Emma is fresh and bubbly, bursting with enthusiasm and she has just the voice for the role, particularly in songs like Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly and Anything You Can Do.

Inevitably Donovan is somewhat in her shadow, but he plays his part, impressing with The Girl That I Marry and a rousing version of There’s No Business Like Show Business.

The story lacks the emotion and zip of, say Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, but with so many good songs it clearly pleased the first night audience who showed commendable patience when the performance began 13 minutes late through technical problems.

Norman Pace – remember him in the comedy duo Hale and Pace – gives a sound performance as Buffalo Bill whose Wild West Show first brings Annie and Frank together, but Ed Currie needs to work on his Chief Sitting Bull accent.

Costumes are excellent and the on-stage band, under musical director Stephen Ridley, earn top marks. To 05.07.14

Paul Marston 

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