Annie Golden, the theater veteran and regular on TV’s “Orange Is the New Black” (playing inmate Norma), isn’t precisely “Annie Golden,” protagonist of Joe Iconis’s new musical “Broadway Bounty Hunter,” world premiering at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass. But the affinities between actor and character invest a personal touch to an otherwise campy, Alice-in-Blaxploitation-land fantasy glancingly concerned with self-empowerment. It’s not unlike Cole Porter contriving prewar vehicles for Ethel Merman or Bert Lahr: Though the material’s flimsy, a distinctive performer gets a chance to shine.
Actually, the limited opportunities for older performers to shine are the focus of the opening (and strongest) sequence here. As our Annie gamely, vainly trods the New York boards, director Julianne Boyd skillfully manages a collage of frustrating encounters with snotty ingenues and condescending directors who can’t see a tested pro as anything but “the mother” or “the kooky maid.”
Golden does woebegone really well. (A bum returns her buck, singing “Looks like you need it more than me.”) Where most musicals open with an “I Want” song, this one presents two “I’ve Had It” numbers, the first bewailing the marginal status of “A Woman of a Certain Age,” followed by a reminiscence of when “I used to be new… the next big thing” but “they don’t spin these records anymore.” Both are character-driven, tightly built showtunes, of the sort few pen better than Iconis (“The Black Suits,” “Things to Ruin”) these days.
At this point, he and co-librettists Lance Rubin and Jason SweetTooth Williams elect to abandon the coldwater flat for the rabbit hole. They send in Shiro Jin (Scott Watanabe), a Mr. Miyagi type of fearsome mien, to recruit her for his dojo for bounty hunters, of which there are of course so many on the Main Stem.
Unaccountably, this Golden girl sets off on a regimen of head kicks, body slams and Kung Fu fighting recognizable from “Foxy Brown” and her ’70s ilk. Annie’s assigned a resentful, reluctant partner (Alan H. Green), who you know will come around eventually, and a Jabberwock to fight in the person of Mac Roundtree (Jeff McCarthy), a Venezuela-based drug dealer whose name is homage to the star of 1971’s “Shaft.”
But what does Annie Golden’s story have to do with a disreputable B-movie genre? Not much, as it turns out. “Coffy” and “Superfly” memes are trotted out rather than satirized or commented upon. They do allow costume designer Bobby Frederick Tilley to go wild with gold lame and upholstery-grade polyester, and orchestrator Charlie Rosen to gleefully channel his inner Isaac Hayes into Iconis’ R&B funk pastiche. (If you’re wondering how long into the show before they bring out the wocka-wocka guitar: one second.)
It’s all quite enjoyable, if repetitious after a while. There’s not a weak link in the diverse ensemble, put through delightful disco-era paces by choreographer Jeffrey Page.
Surprisingly, however, the show underserves its star. Told repeatedly that bounty hunting requires “one part animal instinct/One part primal rage/One part valiant courage/And the wisdom/That comes with age,” we expect to see our heroine employ all of those traits. Yet none of them come into play during the cartoony caper. Indeed, the fish-out-of-water plot virtually demands Golden overdo the waif routine, the bangs and Walter Keane eyes she sported in Milos Forman’s 1979 cinematic “Hair,” though she’s shown she can give so much more.
To be fair, voice and energy were clearly not 100% on an opening weekend after heavy rehearsals. But except for a rousing, climactic paean to “the blood… back in my veins,” the material isn’t there even if Golden were operating on all cylinders. There’s only limited chance to see her take full command of stage and story, as she did in 2000’s “The Full Monty” and as the show’s theme implies she will in the end.
It might be time for Iconis to set his sights a little higher than chopsocky or the thin nostalgia of “The Black Suits.” Porter wrote Merman brilliant songs for trivial vehicles but only won his rep as a premier Broadway artist when handed the stronger narrative of “Kiss Me, Kate.” Perhaps a story emphasizing substance over glossy surfaces is what’s needed to propel Iconis to the next rank. Certainly whatever he writes, Golden has the chops to play it.