YOU couldn’t stage Annie Get Your Gun without a charismatic central performer – and Shaftesbury Arts Centre is fortunate to have one in Sophie Lester.
The original 1946 Broadway staging had Ethel Merman as the sharpshooter Annie Oakley. It is very difficult to hear There’s No Business Like Show Business sung by any other voice than Merman’s rasping boom. It was completely HER song and you either like how she sang it or you don’t. I don’t, so the rather gentler sound of Sophie Lester was a welcome change!
The show went out of fashion for years and when it was revived and revised in the late 1990s it was without two songs that were totally insensitive to native Americans. It was also given a show-within-a-show staging and this works well at Shaftesbury Arts Centre, with simple scene changes and Richard Lloyd’s colourful big top.
Interestingly, Chief Sitting Bull (the sonorous Scott Henstridge), who adopts the innocent young Annie, is one of the most sympathetic characters in the show.
Even with the 1999 cuts, Annie is still pretty dated – it’s hard for 21st century women to swallow the silly misogyny of The Girl That I Marry, sung to the starry eyed Annie by champion sharpshooter Frank Butler (Martin Williams).
But the show is what it is, and congratulations to Sophie, and a cast who all work their socks and ten-gallon hats off, including Phil Elsworth (Buffalo Bill), Sam Skey (as Buffalo Bill’s shrewd manager), Anthony Atwood (the knife-throwing Irish-American Indian Tommy), Helen Purdue (his true love Winnie, who is his assistant in the knife act), and Rachael Alexander who is terrific in the unrewarding but very important role of the spiteful Dolly.
The direction by Rosie King is pacy and imaginative and the sharpshooting (and knife-throwing) scenes are cleverly done. There was excellent support from the Fabulous Cowboy Band, led by musical director Sam Ryall on the keyboard.
Sophie Lester threw herself into this show heart and soul – as well as playing Annie with real sincerity and conviction, she was also the producer. As Rosie King says in her introduction, under the hearing Another opening … another show: “Sophie has been the mainstay.”
Most of Irving Berlin’s songs stand the test of time – notably Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly, You Can’t Get A Man With A Gun, I Got The Sun in the Morning and Anything You Can Do.
It’s a wonky show, a bit like the wagons that rolled across the great plains where the buffalo roamed, but Shaftesbury give it their best (sure)shot. FC
Footnote: Bath Theatre Royal’s egg studio recently staged a wonderful show with music, Little Sure Shot, by Lucy Rivers. Little Sure Shot was the Indian name that Sitting Bull gave his adopted daughter. This show tells Annie’s story from starvation-level poverty to her years as the star of Buffalo Bill’s touring circus. It does so without cloying sentimentality and it gives depth to both the protagonists, Annie and Frank. It really is a better show.