For the second part of our Sheffield extravaganza, Lady Duncansby, Sir William, Mrs Chrisparkle and I were joined by our esteemed friends the Sheriff of Shenstone, Lady Lichfield and the young Baron Brownhills. It’s always a pleasure to spend time with friends and family around the New Year, seeing what musical theatre delights the Crucible have arranged each year. In the past, we’ve been spoilt by seeing Company, My Fair Lady, Oliver, Anything Goes, and Show Boat; how will this year’s offering Annie Get Your Gun compare?
I hadn’t seen this show before. It was always a favourite of the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle, having seen it at the London Coliseum not long after the war. I remember her singing You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun with alarming enthusiasm at inappropriate moments. The show is jam-packed with show toons that are long-lasting standards, but I’d forgotten the rare beauty of I Got the Sun in the Morning which I hadn’t heard for decades. I also realised this was the first time I’d seen a musical written by that much-renowned composer Irving Berlin. It would be fascinating to compare his style with his contemporaries like Cole Porter and Rodgers/Hart/Hammerstein.
Production values, as always at the Crucible, would be high. The choreography is by Alistair David, who had added his touch of magic to all those previous Crucible Christmas shows. Playing Annie is Anna-Jane Casey, who’s always a hit whether she’s lampooning others in Forbidden Broadway or stuck in a rut of a relationship in Company or hoofing her way into the talkies with Mack and Mabel. Feisty and dynamic, but also a brilliant singer and dancer, there’s probably no better fit for the role of sharp-shootin’ Annie Oakley.
Ah yes, Annie Oakley. I guess this was the aspect that I had overlooked when I enthusiastically booked all those months ago. Annie Get Your Gun tells the story of the romance between Annie Oakley and Frank Butler, the original sharp-shooter from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. So the setting is pure Cowboys and Indians, Chief Sitting Bull of the Sioux tribe, and much talk of redface and paleface. And then you have the arguments. Oh my God, the arguments; they’re so tedious. The show predates Porter’s Kiss Me Kate by two years, but the structural similarity between having cantankerous, nay bitchy, arguments between the two leading characters in both shows is obvious. In real life, Annie and Frank had a long, harmonious marriage. The show, however, is powered by the imagined antagonism between the two caused by jealousy.
I may as well confess it; I really, really wanted to like this show for so many reasons, but I’m afraid I really, really didn’t. It’s not the production’s fault – on the whole – although I think a little more set design might have helped explain and contextualise a few of the scenes a bit more. No, it’s the fault of the show itself. It survives on discord and rivalry. Anything you can do, I can do better, as the song goes. But it’s not portrayed like a schoolyard chant, a little silliness where two assertive people each want to have the last word; it’s portrayed as a serious, permanent rift in a relationship. In Kiss Me Kate, you just know that Fred and Lilli have a powerful physical attraction that’s going to knock everything else sideways. But by the time you get to Anything You Can Do, and Annie and Frank start reopening old wounds yet again, you just want to knock their heads together and tell them to grow up.
That’s at the end – but let me go back to the beginning. The lights dim, and a disembodied voice from the back starts to sing There’s No Business Like Show Business. Eventually your eyes locate Frank at the back of the auditorium, singing it with pompous gravity as though it were a hymn. The ensemble come out on stage and sing and dance as the number progresses – but there’s no set so you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who they are, and you wonder why the show’s big song gets such an early airing – surely it’s wasted in this warm-up position? They’ve got a solution to that – repeat it ad nauseam a few more times during the evening. [If you’re interested, it wasn’t the opening number in the original 1946 production; the song sequence changed with the 1999 Broadway revival] Maybe it’s a note of respect to the daddy of all 40s musicals, Oklahoma!, and its unconventional opening with Curly offstage singing about a beautiful morning. That works brilliantly, because we all understand the appeal of a beautiful morning without any further context. There’re no people like show people, on the other hand, just comes across as arrogant and self-aggrandising. We’re show people – you aren’t – therefore we’re better than you. You have no context within the show as yet for this outrageous statement but even so you already resent the characters for their big-headedness.
Now I accept that the first scene after this opening number shows cast members from Buffalo Bill’s show being turned away for accommodation at Wilson’s hotel because they’re showbiz types. They can’t be trusted, so the implied glamour of that overweening first number is turned into a sweet and sour rejection. There’s no business like show business is maybe ironic, after all. But that idea doesn’t get taken any further. Just occasionally, Anna-Jane Casey lets us see a little of Annie’s sensitive side. Ben Lewis, playing Frank, however, gives us a one-dimensional sharp shootin’ suitor, with precious little insight into his motivations or character. Shame – having seen him in Forbidden Broadway and Candide I know he’s capable of much more.
To mirror the front row disharmony between Annie and Frank you have second row friction between the two show manager rivals, Nicolas Colicos’ Buffalo Bill and Mike Denman’s Pawnee Bill. Mr Denman has a go at bringing a little characterisation and magnetism to his role but Mr Colicos gave me no insight into his character at all. Of the other cast members, only Maggie Service seemed to have any real sense of occasion, portraying Dolly as a lovelorn, overlooked but will-stop-at-nothing type who is both villain and object of sympathy. The ensemble gave it all they’d got though, which really helped me get through it, and their dancing was excellent. But, all in all, I’m afraid I found the show quite boring and lacking in theatrical magic. When Annie’s sharp-shootin’ at balloons, one of them failed to burst, which really did nothing for the overall effect. Nevertheless, it was only the presence of Anna-Jane Casey that made the whole show watchable.
It really split our group too – Mrs C and the Sheriff agreed with me that it was lacklustre and dated; Lady L quite enjoyed it but couldn’t get into it; Lady D, Sir William and the young Baron all enjoyed it. You might very well too, and it’s on until 21st January. A good enough production but I think the show should be consigned to the history books. Disappointed!