It's no surprise that Irving Berlin's 1946 'Wild West' musical comedy (with Ethel Merman in the title role in the original Broadway production) was a huge hit with audiences - it overflows with infectious tunes and showbiz bonhomie. However, some critics at the time regarded this unapologetically old-fashioned show as retrograde and lightweight.
Three years earlier Rodgers and Hammerstein had pioneered a more dramatic kind of musical, where the songs really drive the story forward, with their own Western show, Oklahoma!. In contrast, the story in Annie Get Your Gun is pretty slight and no serious themes are explored. But with show-stoppers like "There's No Business Like Show Business" and "Anything You Can Do", audiences didn't give a dime.
Herbert and Dorothy Fields' book is loosely based on the amazingly true (and truly amazing) career of Annie Oakley, who became an international celebrity in the late 19th century with her sharp-shooting exploits in Buffalo Bill's travelling Wild West show. In their romantic comedy, Annie's love for rival shooting star Frank Butler is (temporarily, of course!) thwarted by his pride, as he refuses to accept she is the better marksman.
Although Timothy Sheader's production gives full rollicking value to Berlin's upfront comedy and uplifting songs, it is based on the 'revisionist' 1999 Broadway version, in which Peter Stone made the Fields' book more politically correct, especially in its portrayal of Native Americans.
In fact, Sheader has gone further by framing the show within a 1940s setting – the scenes are played out in front of an audience of GIs – to emphasise the context in which it was written. More successfully, the climactic shooting match between Annie and Frank ends in a draw not in Annie's defeat, as Frank follows Annie's lead in deliberately missing – now that's equality of the sexes for you!
Rebecca Thornhill's performance as Annie, however, is bang on target, as she evolves from naïve hillbilly tomboy to a more feminine maturity, while retaining her feistiness. And she's in fine vocal form in comic songs and tender ballads alike. Steven Houghton's mellifluous Frank is a little bit wooden to start with, but he soon warms into the part, as he changes from vain ladykiller to lovestruck partner.
This truly ensemble production certainly has plenty of pizzazz, with stirring choreography from Karen Bruce and colourful design from Yannis Thavoris. The story and characters may not be the most sophisticated or subtle, but Berlin's upbeat music and lyrics ensure the feelgood factor.
- Neil Dowden (reviewed at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley)