Review: Annie Get Your Gun (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday August 30)

The costumes, the scenery, the makeup, the props, the songs, the lead performance – none of these can disguise the fact that Annie Get Your Gun, currently on a slightly curtailed national tour, is a great musical with a dull plot.
Emma Williams in Annie Get Your Gun. Photo: Alastair Muir.Emma Williams in Annie Get Your Gun. Photo: Alastair Muir.
Emma Williams in Annie Get Your Gun. Photo: Alastair Muir.

Not even Peter Stone’s rewriting of Herbert and Dorothy Fields’ original book (used for the 2009 Broadway revival and also for this production) could add sparkle to what is ultimately a dreary show packed with showstopping musical numbers by Irving Berlin. The new book understandably tones down or drops some of the strands that would simply not be acceptable today, but it is surely political correctness gone mad to alter the outcome of the climactic shooting match in Act 2 to a draw.

Ian Talbot’s direction is pleasant enough and the cast generally works hard, with an emphasis on making the big numbers (such as I’ve Got the Sun in the Morning and There’s No Business Like Show Business – which now unnecessarily opens what is a ‘show within a show’ presented within a Big Top travelling circus) extra special. It’s also great to see the excellent orchestra, led by Stephen Ridley, on stage powering its way through some of the best showtunes ever written.

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The story is simple: Annie Oakley wins a shooting match against the star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West travelling show and finds herself becoming the main attraction while also coming to terms with her first true experience of real love.

Far and away the best thing in this production is Emma Williams as the sharp-shooting, gun-toting Annie Oakley, the loveable backwoods straight-talking tomboy. She sings and acts faultlessly and superbly and, frankly, steals the show a little too easily. There is a real sense of character development from the naivety of Doin’ What Comes Naturally to the assured I Got Lost in His Arms – hard to believe with this rumbustious performance that the real Ms Oakley was a quiet woman who enjoyed a spot of needlepoint in her spare time!

Jason Donovan plays her love interest, cocky champion gunman Frank Butler. The womanising sharpshooter is somewhat emasculated in the revised book – in the absence of the song I’m a Bad, Bad Man he comes across as a nice but ineffectual guy looking to find his sensitive side (yuk!). But Donovan seems to lack interest anyway: he struggles vocally with many of the songs – Anything You Can Do is almost ruined, though saved by lively delivery and an extraordinarily long note from Emma Williams – and it’s hard to see what Annie sees in him romantically apart from a winning smile.

There’s pleasing support especially from Norman Pace as a genial Buffalo Bill, Kara Lane as Dolly Tate and William Oxborrow as Charlie Davenport, and there’s some fine choreography to match the hits from Lizzi Gee.

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With a new version of Calamity Jane about to whip crack-away on tour for several months, time will tell which musical packs the more powerful punch. But for now, Annie Get Your Gun looks a bit too much like the mild Wild West to be a contender.