Saturday, 16 November 2013

Annie Get Your Gun, Queanbeyan Players, The Q

Yes, this is the first Canberran show I've seen since Broadway. So, yes, possibly standards are going to be tricky when judging what comes next in the firing line (see, that's funny cause this is a musical about people shooting a lot).

Still... this was not an enjoyable evening in the theatre. Irving Berlin's 1940's musical has a strong song-stack of standards including "There's No Business Like Show Business", and "Anything You can Do I can Do Bettter", and a script that I remember thinking was pretty good when I first saw it when someone else's high school did it in Armidale when I was 12. And Annie Oakley is one of the great female leads in a musical - written for the legendary Ethel Merman, the role's bounced around since then being performed by everybody from Debbie Reynolds and Bernadette Peters to Suzi Quatro and Reba McIntyre.

There are, however, key problems with the show that any production needs to deal with in any contemporary production - first, the sexism (the basic conflict of the show is that the male lead can't accept being outclassed by his love interest, and that's a fine thing to deal with, but not if you're going to think his reaction is perfectly acceptable); and second, the racism (there's material about indians which is pretty much on the level of "gosh, they have silly names and speak silly"). This 1999 rewrite vaguely attempts to address both, but really fails to engage either on a fundamental level, at least in this production - the indians are still largely joke characters, and the sexism thing isn't really engaged either as Frank remains a bland character who whines a bit (cutting his character-establishing song, "I'm a Bad Bad Man" probably doesn't help, as it might at least have given him a little bit of roguish charm to be getting on with. It's also bad history, as the real life Frank Butler doesn't seem to have had any problems with his wife being more capable than him.

The device of framing the entire show as a "wild West show" is intriguing (for historical reference, the events of the show are taking place at about the same time as the events in the TV series "Deadwood", which means there's something that can be said about how the Wild West was being mythologised even as it was dying off, so a bit more use of the idea that what we're being told is nothing like the whole truth would be handy ..) but instead  all we really get is a few pre-announced scene changes and a chance for the stage crew to be visible. Which is disappointing.

Very nearly redeeming the whole exercise is Anita Davenport, whose Annie is reckless, charming, sings well and supremely self-confident. Elsewhere the cast isn't as good - a reluctance to embrace Frank's slightly caddish nature instead leaves Richard Block largely playing a peevish blank of a character, Pat Gallagher is fine but doesn't have a lot to do as Buffalo Bill Cody, Greg Sollis and Sophie Hawkins are charming but their subplot remains so massively inessential (it was cut in the 1966 revival in favour of giving Merman an extra song) that they mostly keep contributing to running time rather than anything else. A lot of the supporting cast plays some very average jokes very very broadly, with the result looking like bad high-school drama. Oddly enough, the best acting apart from Davenport seems to come from 8-year-old Jake Keen, who's performance avoids the ick associated with child actors and who instead lands all his jokes and is rather effortlessly charming with it.

The orchestra put together by John Yoon is perfectly fine once they work their way in (I suspect a little pre-tuning up would have been handy as the overture had a couple of wildly off-key notes). Kathyrn Jones' choreography varies from the bland to the "what the hell are you thinking" during "My Defences are Down" (I assume she's going for laughs, but ... god knows why, it has nothing to do with the characters, the song or the show).

So... no, this wasn't a great night out in the theatre - instead it's an evening where I kept on wishing I could be watching the Davenport-sings-the-Merman-catalogue-with-an-8-year-olds-assistance show instead. Which is a pity.

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