After their success with Oklahoma! Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II decided to start producing musicals and book writer Dorothy Fields approached the pair with an idea for a fictionalised musical based on the life of Annie Oakley, a sharpshooter who starred in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Written in 1945 as a star-vehicle for Field’s friend Ethel Merman, Annie Get Your Gun is one of the classics. Even if you don’t know the musical, you’ve probably heard a song or two from the show. Irvin Berlin’s score features hits “There’s No Business Like Show Business”, “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly”, “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun”, “They Say It’s Wonderful”, and “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better).”
In 1950 Annie Get Your Gun was given the silver screen treatment as one of MGM’s classic musical movies. Judy Garland was originally cast as Annie Oakley, however was later fired from the production and replaced with Betty Hutton for arguing with the director, being late or not turning up to set at all. Garland filmed a handful of songs and these emotionally charged performances can be seen on YouTube and on DVD special features. Since then the musical has had incredible success with productions worldwide and eventually returned to Broadway in a heavily revived 1999 production starring Bernadette Peters as Annie Oakley. This revised production eliminated all references that were offensive to American Indians, excluding songs “Colonel Buffalo Bill” and “I’m An Indian Too” and presented the musical as a show-within-a-show. I haven’t seen or listened to the show since I studied the original 1945 version in high school, so was extremely excited to see this revised production at The Union Theatre.
One of Broadway’s most loved musicals, Annie get Your Gun is the fictionalised tale of real-life sharpshooter Annie Oakley, her career in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and her romance with Frank Butler. Union Theatre’s production stars Gemma Maclean as Annie Oakley, Blair Robertson as Frank Butler and Mark Poland as Buffalo Bill. As gun-slinging sharp shooter Annie, Gemma Maclean hits the mark dead centre. Combining comic flair with a brassy strong vocal not often seen in smaller venues, her journey from tom boy shooter to strong woman was totally believable resulting in a perfected performance. Blair Robertson’s Frank Butler was everything he should have been, a “big swollen-headed stiff” as described by Annie. Robertson’s smooth baritone vocal and confident bravado made the audience fall in love with him and in turn become frustrated with him just as much as Annie during the show. A hard part to play and still be liked by the audience at the end of the show, Robertson gave a brave performance and his duet with Annie in “They Say It’s Wonderful” was a highlight of the show. Mark Pollard’s Buffalo Bill filled the stage with a warm presence, perfectly cast in the role and every bit the showman.
Supporting Annie, Frank and Buffalo Bill are Lala Barlow as Dolly Tate, Georgia Conlan as Winnie Tate, Dominic Harbison as Tommy Keeler, Dafydd Lansley as Charlie Davenport and Lawrence Guntert in dual roles as Little Jake and Chief Sitting Bull. As Frank’s assistant, Lala Barlow played a jealous and scheming Dolly Tate. Her characterisation was fun although I felt a lot more could have been made of Dolly’s not-so-keen intellect and larger than life movements. This is definitely not a subtle show and I felt Barlow’s Dolly missed the mark in this respect. Georgia Conlan as Dolly’s suffering sister Winnie Tate was a breath of fresh air. She delivered a strong vocal and a wonderfully contrasting characterisation which made the romantic sub-plot between her and Dominic Harbison’s half-indian Tommy Keeler a joy. As Charlie Davenport, Dafydd Lansley was another gem. Taking the character of Charlie to an almost Sheldon Cooper of the Big Bang Theory place was a lot of fun and he stole each scene he was in. Lawrence Guntert’s Cheif Sitting Bull was a fun added touch reminding the audience they were watching a show-within-a-show and giving this versatile actor another chance to shine.
Amy Watt’s clever design gave us burlap sack dead animals, cut out wooden guns and ladders which added levels to the stage and doubled as a make-shift pro arch donning stage curtains for the Buffalo Bill’s Show scenes. Her design was a perfect fit for the space and added to the show within a show feel perfectly. Due to the show’s small cast, Kirk Jameson’s direction made the show more of an ensemble piece than previous productions. I really enjoyed getting to know the actors and seeing them take on multiple roles was a treat. The revised script as a show-within-a-show works well in the small Union Theatre space, however I thought a closer inspection of the script and dialogue could have been applied and to give the production a much more heightened presentation. During the course of the evening, I forgot I was watching a show-within-a-show and although the revised script eliminated the more aggressive racial offenses, when confronted with racial or feminist themes or dialogue I found it very jarring. A more stylised heightened production would have made these themes fit into the show-within-a-show format, possibly with a knowing modern day wink to the audience without jarring and causing indifference.
Overall The Union Theatre’s production of Annie Get Your Gun is a nostalgic, cleverly designed trip down memory lane. With hit after hit being sang with aplomb, it’s hard not to tap your feet and cheer for Annie while she’s “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly” .
Reviewed by Stuart James