Charlie (Jimmy Cagney-esque wiseguy John Marquez) sizes up the situation: “I guess you didn’t like the Indian number.” To which Niall Ashdown’s sraight-faced Sitting Bull replies, “I have reservations.” He’s unlikely to be the only one. Five-time Olivier winner Richard Jones’ idiosyncratic take on “Annie Get Your Gun” will enrage purists. Ricocheting between the delightfully mad and the utterly maddening, it’s London’s most maverick production of a musical in years.
The question Jones potently asks is: How exactly do you stage this piece in 2009? Since its 1946 premiere, the book’s handling of racial and gender matters has, to put it mildly, dated. But instead of apologizing for its politics, Jones wittily highlights the attitudes underpinning the stereotypes.
It’s not because London is short on Native American actor/singers that the “Indians” are played by white men sporting traditional wigs. Jones is underlining the absurdity of a scenario that originally aroused little comment from white theatergoers. He further rebalances the show by casting black actors as Sitting Bull and Annie’s young sidekick Jessie.
To key everyone in, Jones complements the overture with witty video footage. Updated from turn-of-the-century Wild West to the 1940s, the show now delivers prevailing attitudes of the era in which it was written. Thus we watch screen images of children playing “Indians” across the U.S. and, later, see Annie receiving her sharp-shootin’ medals from world leaders including Winston Churchill and, er, Hitler.
In the latter sequence, Jason Carr smartly interpolates Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” into his superb musical arrangement. For Annie’s arrival in New York, he tucks in Gershwin’s Piano Concerto. That’s all of a piece given that Carr has reconfigured the entire score (Berlin’s finest) to be played solely by four upright pianos.
With arpeggios rippling across all four keyboards rooted by brightly percussive chords, the homespun and zesty musical texture sounds like a stride-piano convention. It also allows the voices to be, mercifully, very lightly miked. Which, in one particular case, is where serious problems begin.
Annie Oakley is (over)played by Jane Horrocks, who made her name impersonating singers in the play “The Rise and Fall of Little Voice.” Here she actually has to be one. The point of this show is the score. Nobody ever staged this Ethel Merman warhorse for its drama — her ideas about acting were largely confined to face front and talk loud. But Horrocks’ voice has dodgy intonation and no power. And there’s nothing natural about her thuddingly over-emphasized delivery of “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly.”
In a shock reversal — has anyone except a producer ever cared who played Frank? — the show is stolen by Julian Ovenden. It doesn’t hurt that when he announces, “I have to admit I am blessed with a certain animal magnetism,” no one disagrees. But what singles him out is his ease — physically and, especially, vocally. When he sings, the hit-filled score truly soars.
The other major difficulty is the set, a case of “nice model box, shame about the show.” Designer Ultz has created a cramped, low-ceilinged, widescreen box of a stage that fits the show’s avowedly presentational style. But with the exception of “My Defenses Are Down,” where Ovenden rushes off and back to plant a kiss on Annie, the extreme lack of depth kills the choreography stone-dead. Even “I’ve Got the Sun in the Morning” lacks joy.
Most puzzlingly, Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting delivers most of its saturated color and pizzazz to the auditorium. The onstage action looks neither focused nor controlled, and worst of all, its energy is dissipated.
Yet the production does makes its own bizarre sense, thanks in part to Nicky Gillibrand’s eye-popping costumes. At one point, Liza Sadovy’s strutting Dolly sports blue suede-fringed boots, leopard-print pants, a gingham-checked jacket, and a wig so red it could be a fire hydrant. Similarly, Buffy Davis makes hilarious mountains out the hitherto molehill roles of saloon owner Mrs. Wilson by leading with her glasses, and socialite Mrs. Potter Porter by the arch angling of her upswept hair.
Several rights holders curbed some of Jones’ rewrites and ideas during previews. And some audiences will castigate the creators for failing to redeliver the original. But anyone watching this iconoclastic take will certainly never see “Annie Get Your Gun” the same way again.