Annie Get Your Gun was originally conceived for Ethel Merman and, along with Gypsy, Funny Girl and Hello, Dolly, is a musical theatre girlís best friend. Mary Martin, Betty Hutton, and, more recently, Bernadette Peters have added their names to the roster of megastars whose personal charms have been the right fit for the sharp-shooting country hick. Currently onstage at Massey Hall, Louise Pitre is adding her own signature to the musical in a concert staging.
New Yorkís Encore Series has pioneered and championed the staged concert version of musicals, many of them long-forgotten or rarely produced. Chicago, which was revived to great acclaim and greater financial reward, is perhaps the finest example of Encoreís work, not so much for its artistry as for its invention of whittling down the scale of a commercial monster to a manageable scale of mini-monster. Annie Get Your Gun is in another class altogether, since its pedigree has always been first class and its place in theatre history never questioned.
The thing about a vehicle, especially a musical vehicle – and perhaps even more, a vehicle for La Merman – is that the show rests squarely on the starís mighty shoulders. For Pitre, this is not an issue. She has shoulders with shoulders. And the score, which is after all the only worthwhile element to discuss, since the script (aka ìthe bookî in musical theatre language) is little more than a series of lead-ins to the songs, is there to flatter the leading lady.
The most striking feature of this production is the orchestra, all 28 of them, plus Rick Fox, the gifted musical director. Just as Encore does it on Broadway, producers Tina VanderHeyden and Stephen Adler have managed to finance what we havenít seen, or heard, for decades – a full complement of instruments, unaugmented by synthesizers and other enhancements. The Overture is stirring and really evokes another time, a time when music could be played rather than replicated. For this alone, many thanks.
Pitre, not to let the lady languish in a lower paragraph acknowledgement, gives the show her all. She twangs and teases every lyric and lame joke as though each was pure gold. She doesnít let up for a moment. And the audience responds to her from her entrance to her final bow. Not a particularly warm performer, Pitre is best served with roles like this that portray her as an underdog fighting to achieve respectability.
But there is a problem inherent in vehicles of any kind, and that is the balance between star and everyone else. In Mermanís day, audiences may not have cared who played what or how the star interacted (or didnít) with her colleagues. At Massey Hall, the leading lady appears willing to give and take with everyone on the stage, but the material and some of the casting makes the effort almost pointless.
The script is dreadfully thin, made even thinner with an adaptation by Don Carrier. Better, I would say, to have dispensed with as much dialogue as possible and cut to the next song. Talented people such as Jonathan Wilson, Sandy Winsby and Avery Saltzman do what they can with what little (and itís precious little, too) theyíve been given. And the staging, which begins with energy and clever use of limited space, runs down to a whimper during the second act. Donna Feore directs the actors to play front and centre, as she must, though attention to those in the balcony should be encouraged rather than ignored, as they were on the opening night. The choreography, like much of the dialogue, would improve with further editing out, especially the staging for Thereís No Business Like Show Business and My Defenses are Down.
Billy Ray Cyrus, sharing the marquee with Pitre, plays the somewhat thankless role of co-star. But a star vehicle has no co-star. Rather, she has support and a good sport who accepts that he is there to balance her and not compete with her. Cyrus, whose stage persona is sweetly unassuming and altogether macho, has no particular actorís technique. He might be a better fit for television or film, but he is out of his depth as a stage actor, even in a musical where personality can cover a multitude of technical deficiencies. He has a pleasant voice that lacks any emotional range or colour and he is not skilled with a lyric. The songs he sings all sound pretty much the same, one lyric just as weightless as another. The added burden for anyone playing the role of Frank Butler is that he gets the songs that serve only to highlight the greater quality of his leading lady. He sings Iím a Bad, Bad Man and My Defenses are Down while she sings You Canít Get a Man With a Gun, Doiní What Comes Naturílly and a host of others. They sing together and they sing in ensembles numbers, but he has no standout moment of his own with which to define himself as performer or character. In the absence of material, then, he has himself, and Cyrus, sweet though he is, just doesnít have enough to balance or complement the overpowering (and occasionally overpowered) Pitre.
Michael Gianfrancesco has designed an attractive stage for the concert, and John Munro has conceived a very smart lighting scheme that combines concert lighting with more traditional musical theatre elements – we are never in doubt about where we are or why. Greg Connolly has yet to find a sound balance that doesnít obscure the dialogue and much of the ensemble work.
VanderHeyden and Adler have gambled big with this venture. I hope that they find audiences to sustain the run and, with good luck, to produce more orchestra-rich concert stagings.