Rose Bowl Crit – Annie Get Your Gun

VENUE: The Playhouse Theatre, Weston
DATE: Friday, 21 April 2017

Along with ‘Oklahoma’, this show launched the American takeover of British musical theatre immediately after the end of World War II.  They opened in London’s West End within five weeks of one another in April and June of 1947 and had similar, what were very long runs for those days, of 1,543 and 1,304 performances respectively.  Both received rave notices, and there was a running battle between their supporters during their stay in London as to which was the better show, and contained the most ‘Hit’ numbers.  At that time the sale of records and sheet music were the best indication of how popular a number was there was very little difference between the songs from these two shows, which between them dominated the popular music scene in Great Britain for well over the first year of their stay at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and the London Coliseum.

Since those days when these two heavy weight shows fought it out toe to toe for the public’s support, ‘Oklahoma’ has forged ahead, hardly ever going out of fashion, whereas ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ has faded more into the background, only that hymn to show business, There’s No Business Like Show Business retaining its place at the forefront of popular music classics.  A reason for this may be the fact that after ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ composer/lyricist Irving Berlin had only one more successful Broadway show, the now even more neglected, ‘Call Me Madam’.  Oklahoma’s Composer and Lyricist Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II however, still had ‘Carousel’, ‘South Pacific’, The King and I’, Flower Drum Song’ and ‘Sound of Music’ to bring them further success on Broadway and in London’s ‘West End’.

The fact that it has not had as long lasting success as its great rival, ‘Oklahoma’ does not detract from the quality of this show, but it does make it that much more difficult to sell to a modern audience.  If you compare the musical content and libretto with the more oft presented ‘Calamity Jane’, the show with which it is quite often compared, this show more than holds its own with that stage version of a successful film musical.   With due respect to composer and Lyricist Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster, their I Can Do Without You, a direct crib from, Anything You Can Do, comes off second best if you compare the words and music of the two numbers.

From all that you may gather that I believe that you chose a quality musical to present, albeit one which at the moment is not riding high in the estimation of the followers of musical theatre.  In style, it very much belongs to the immediate post World War 11 period, and it will not fully blossom if replanted in another style.  Like any shows written in a period when Political Correctness was less sensitive than it is today, some people take exception to the way in which certain characters are depicted.   In this case ‘Native Americans’, ‘I’m an Indian Too’, an excellent ensemble number in its own right, disappears in this version of the show.  This presumably is because it features ‘Red Indians’ as Native Americans were referred to when ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ was first produced, and most certainly were in the late 19th century.   Looking at it strictly as a production number the loss of ‘I’m an Indian Too’ is a blow to the Choreographer, MD, and Chorus.

The version that you worked from also rearranges the story a little, introducing another bit of Political Correctness that undoubtedly helps the storyline to sit more comfortably with in particular any feminist elements in the audience.  In the original, Annie ‘throws’ the final shooting contests, unbeknown to Frank, in order to gain his love.  In this version, Frank realises what Annie is doing and in turn misses the target in order to make the contest a tie.  When you take into consideration the long, apparently happy, marriage between the real-life Annie and Frank I think this new ending is better in every way.   The slight rearrangement of the storyline has another great plus, providing a chance for ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’ to be more heavily featured.  In the original it was the sixth number to be introduced compared to the opening shot in this new version, and only reprised late in the production.

This production wisely did not attempt to take the story out of its original period, costumes and settings helping to place the characters in the right time and space.  You could argue that the costumes were more theatrical than real, but in the context of this show I do not think that this detracted in any way from the visual effectiveness of the production.

In these days of heightened health and safety it is difficult to acquire guns that look and sound completely realistic.  Those on view in this production passed muster well enough.

When I first saw the Orchestra positioned in the rear of the stage I was a bit nervous about how they would fit into different scenes in these days of personal mic’s for the principals, and musicians I had no doubt that the Sound Team would create a fine balance between singers and musicians, and my confidence was not misplaced.  The Set designer, Stage crew, and Lighting team ensured that the Orchestra were rarely, and then only marginally, intrusive within a scene.

With the MD, always in complete command of the score the company found themselves fully supported throughout proceedings, and the audience were able to sit back and enjoy Irving Berlin’s excellent tuneful music.  Any doubts I had about the playing of the music concerned tempo, and these were of such a personal preference kind that it would be unfair to put them forward as a criticism of the work of the MD and Orchestra.  There were one or two moments in the production when the pace slowed a little, but where to apportion the blame for this between Players and Director is an impossible task.  Those moments apart, this production moved along at a brisk pace capturing en-route the spirit of the show, and the style of a musical from an earlier era.

Individual Performances

Frank Butler:   In the absence of Frank’s original opening number, I’m a Bad, Bad Man notice is given from the word go that this Frank Butler although still a ‘big-head’ full of his own importance is by no means the bullying chauvinist of the original story.

Appropriately you introduced him as a swaggering, handsome man well aware of the effect he had on the local, unsophisticated, female population and, with some justification, supremely confident of his ability as a marksman.  It a difficult line to walk presenting those facets of Frank’s personality without slipping back into the chauvinist character.  With a nice easy going presentation, which you took readily into your vocals, you allowed us to see the vulnerability behind the brash façade.  As a result, we could see why Annie’s actions, albeit unintentional, of upstaging you by the introduction of new, show-stopping routines into her act would be so hurtful.  The upset when you compared your small number of medals with Annie’s fulsome hoard was equally understandable.  In these final scenes you never let your genuine love for Annie slip completely out of sigh,t dramatically and musically handling the romantic duet An Old-Fashioned Wedding, a thoughtful reprise of The Girl That I Marry, and boisterous Anything You Can Do with equal surety and conviction.  It was a pleasure to listen to those three numbers so very different in sentiment as it had been earlier to hear more expansive, expertly presented, My Defences Are Down.

Buffalo Bill Cody:  Now here is a character who has to take on the job of introducing himself to a ‘cold’ audience before setting up the beginning of the story, not the most enviable of tasks.  The pity of it is that there is a number, Colonel Buffalo Bill, available which did that job very well in the original and for the life of me I cannot think of why it has been dropped from this version of the show.  Nevertheless, appropriately dressed, (but why no changes throughout, especially for the scene in the hotel with Pawnee Bill?) you got the show away to a rather underpowered but very smooth start.  That word ‘smooth’ can be applied to this portrayal from start to finish.  Here was an actor completely at home in the character, ready willing and able to join in a musical number whenever the opportunity arose.  Perhaps there were a couple of moments when you could have been a little more assertive, but if you were going to err on one side of the coin or the other better this side, so that the dignity and authority you had bestowed on Buffalo Bill was never damaged in any way.

Dolly Tate:  A difficult role to judge correctly.  Dolly spends so much of her time trying to be noticed by Frank, and/or the public that it becomes almost impossible not to overplay her.  Your expansive performance was, I am glad to say, kept just about in check making this a very good portrayal of this outgoing lady.  Musically you, like the ‘Col’ himself, must be regretting that the ‘Colonel Buffalo Bill’ number no longer starts the show because it would have given you, with Charlie Davenport, a chance to show off your vocal powers as individuals, now you have to be content to be part of the ensemble.  Showing unrelenting prejudice against Tommy Keeler you took every opportunity to bully Winnie and to manoeuver Frank’s feelings away from Annie.  When you consider how little dialogue was placed at your disposal to do this, it says much for the control you had over the role of  Dolly that you achieved so much in this area.   Visually good, just a little on the ‘common’ side in your appearance, a little too much makeup and costume – rather than real – jewellery on show.   A strong, clear cut portrayal that fitted snugly into its place within the storyline.

Tommy Keeler and Winnie Tate:  I suppose the term ‘Juvenile lead’ has now disappeared from the vocabulary describing ‘Musical Theatre’, but at the time that this show first saw the light of day it was in common use to describe this sort of duet.  Two lively young players, who could brighten up the action, add a little comedy, and put over a song and dance routine with freshness and enthusiasm.  You two ticked all those boxes, showing us the sort of bright, young talent in Who Do You Love I Hope to leave us wanting to see and hear more of the same.

Charlie Davenport:  The ‘advance’ man as such people as Charlie were called in the days when this show is set, was someone to go ahead, as Charlie did to try and set up the shooting match on the Wilson Arms lawn, to smooth thing ahead of the main theatrical group’s arrival.  Such a man had to be quick witted, able to think on his feet, and that was the sort of man you gave us.  There was a nice touch of the cynic in your Charlie if anyone knew how many beans made five it was him.  At the same time the feeling that this was someone of whom Buffalo Bill could be certain that, whether it was dealing with a local like Foster Wilson or the more world wise Pawnee Bill, Charlie would be out to get the best deal possible for all concerned.  The Charlie you produced may not have been the brightest star in the universe, but he was a very likeable, trustworthy friend, who showed when let loose on There’s No Business Like Show Business that he really loved the business in which he found himself.

Foster Wilson:  The tight fisted Mr Wilson that you portrayed so surely was typical of the careful, small business man to be found in America’s mid-west, when it was still comparatively cut off from the more metropolitan areas of the east coast.  I think a little more could have been made out of the fact that Annie’s reward for winning the shooting match was far less than you received from Charlie Davenport.  This is no criticism of the way in which you played the scene, only the fact that you were not made more of a focal point at that moment.  A firmly drawn character who fulfilled all the requirements placed on him in the story.

Mac, The Props Man:  Rather like that grand group of Western-super-mare Operatic Society company members who plied their trade all but out of sight behind the scenes, Mac has little opportunity to show his full worth to the production as a whole.  Like them however the show would have been the poorer, and run less smoothly, without him and so can I here, on behalf of the company thank Mac, and those behind for all their praiseworthy efforts.

Sitting Bull:  In this version of the show this legendary Native American Holy Man, who did in fact for a short time appear in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, is reduced very much to a side show.  With the friendship between Sitting Bull and Annie Oakley which led up to the I’m An Indian Too sequence now removed, Sitting Bull’s input into the story has been pushed to the peripheries of the tale.  With that in mind you had to paint this great man in broad, brisk brush stokes, hinting rather than showing the depth of the character.  You carried out this task neatly, making a distinct character of a big man sitting on the edge of the events, rather than standing in the middle of them.

Jessie, Nellie, and Little Jake Oakley:  Easy to over play your hand in that first scene when this trio emerge from the backwoods all grubby and apparently slow witted.  You quickly dispelled any indication that you were three dullards with your very efficient contribution Doin’ What Comes Naturally.   From there on in it was noticeable that whichever one of you was called on to intervene in the dialogue or musical input, the work had been well rehearsed and slotted seamlessly into its place within the scene.  No embarrassing pauses or missed cues from this trio, even in the tricky Moonshine Lullaby with the Cowboy Trio and Annie which so easily could have gone disastrously wrong there were no errors in your combined contributions.  If you add to this an absence of inclination to try and upstage the older members of the cast, something that usually comes naturally to the younger elements in a company, and you have a very welcome contribution to affairs from this trio.

Annie Oakley:  Although she had previously tasted great success in shows like Girl Crazy, Anything Goes, DuBarry Was a Lady, and Panama Hattie,  this is the role that probably more than any other cemented Ethel Merman’s place as one of the great stars of musicals on Broadway.  Sadly, the cinema only in flashes managed to capture the wonderful mixture of brash know-all and loveable lady which made her such a beloved figure on the Broadway stage.  She had a brassy belter of a voice which it was said could be heard from one end of Broadway to the other, but which at the same time could equally convey sincerity and romance.

Quite an act to follow and one which wisely, you never attempted to slavishly copy.  Your Annie, particularly vocally, owed more to the ‘Julie Andrews’ of this world than the Ethel Mermans.  Not that when required you couldn’t, and did, give numbers like Doin’ What Comes Naturally, and You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun plenty of ‘wellie’.  I Got Lost in His Arms, They Say It’s Wonderful, and I Got the Sun In the Morning on the other hand, all had a warm rich vein of romance running right through their heart.

There were times when I would have liked to have seen a bit more of the feisty lady on view, after all for all her mellowing as she becomes more a part of the world of show business she is still at heart a country hick who hails from the ‘backwoods’ and has had to fight all the way for everything she possesses.  The attempts to learn to read and difficulties that came with your first attempts to do so out loud were beautifully played.   Above all else you created a woman who wore her heart on her sleeve, there was no artifice about this Annie.  She loved her Frank with the same ferocity that she had earlier shown when setting out to take care of and protect Jessie, Nellie, and Little Jake.

Although in this version you are excused the humiliation of having to pretend to lose in order to feed Frank’s ego, the fact that you had so carefully created a lady who would have had the strength to do even that if she felt it necessary, tells us what a strong, realistic portrayal of Annie Oakley this was.

Running Dear /Eagle Feather / Dining Room Waiter / Sleeping Car Porter:   

You all had to work within scenes which were some of the less successfully staged.  There should be quite a bit of humour in the scenes with the Native Americans creating a little havoc in an area of the train in which they were not supposed to be located, but little of this developed.  One of the reasons for this was that, despite the best efforts of the Lighting Team, and Stage Crew, visually the picture presented did not give the impression of a moving ‘Pullman Car’.  There appeared to be far too much room available rather than the confines of a railway carrriage.  In this situation, the Dining Car Waiter and Sleeping Car Porter were, with little dialogue to help, rather cut adrift in their efforts to create realistic figures.

With the script ‘pussy footing’ around in order not to be offensive towards the Native Americans, Running Dear and Eagle Feather were also hampered in their efforts to extract humour from the situation they found themselves in.  For all of those drawbacks, here were four players all working tremendously hard to make the most of the little ammunition at their disposal in order to fulfil their duty in the show.  No Director could ask for more from any member of the cast.

Pawnee Bill:  A big man within the world of entertainment, a small man within the confines of this story, that’s Pawnee Bill.  He has to be played, therefore, expansively, cutting straight to the chase with no frills.  You were obviously aware of this scenario and bounced straight into the action with a man full of his own importance.  It was not surprising to discover all too soon that ‘Our Bill’ was an empty vessel, making great deal of noise with little or no substance.  This sort of characterisation fitted the role quite nicely, thank you.

Messenger / Master of Ceremonies:  The Messenger breezed in with such authority that we could have been excused if we thought that this late in the proceedings another major character was about to be introduced.  This, of course, was not the case but it did illustrate just how clearly and confidently this cameo role was played.  A much more ‘set piece’ for the Master of Ceremonies to present, and again we had an actor on hand to ensure that we missed none of the information he was about to impart to us.

Mrs Sylvia Potter-Porter / Mrs Schuyler Adams:   Little more than window dressing, this pair nevertheless are important characters in the scene in which they appear.  If they fail to make a definite impression there is little for the others involved to respond to and the scene suffers badly as a result.  Phoney they may have sounded and looked, but this pair definitely left a distinct impression and as such fulfilled their duties admirably.

Moonlight Trio:  I have already commented on the presentation of the scene in which Moonlight Lullaby is sung, so let us stay here with the input of this trio to the number.  In conjunction with Annie and her siblings vocally it had an attractive sound to the delivery.  The movement that went with the number, although a trifle predictable, fitted the situation well enough and certainly did not detract from a nice rendition of a gentle melody, of which in many more modern musicals there are very few on offer.

The Company:  Good to see this number of players available and prepared to put in the work necessary to provide sound backing for the principals and, when the opportunity is offered, ready, willing and able to be part of a true ensemble piece of playing.  From the opening opportunity provided by There’s No Business Like Show Business through to the reprise of They Say It’s Wonderful and Finale Ultimo this group of players gave the impression that they were well in charge of the work they had been asked to learn and were enjoying presenting it to the public.  Their finished work suggested that the Choreographer MD and Director hand spent a fair amount of time rehearsing the Company and that work paid off in the product they placed before the audience.

Thank you very much for your kind reception, two excellently placed seats, and a most welcome interval cup of coffee.  Gerry Parker