YET again 'Manchester Gets it First' with the launch of a major new production of Irving Berlin’s classic musical Annie Get Your gun, starring Jason Donovan, Emma Williams and Norman Pace.
It's premiered at Manchester Opera House prior to a national tour.
Unfortunately Jason Donovan's voice just isn't good enough. He's had good reviews for some of his West End roles, but Irving Berlin's ballads require a rich, warm and accurate delivery.
With timeless classic songs including There’s No Business Like Show Business and Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better, Annie Get Your Gun tells the legendary story of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West female sharpshooter, Annie Oakley and her romance with fellow sharpshooter, Frank Butler.
Some of the story is true. Annie Oakley, born in 1860 and raised in poverty, became a talented sharp shooter who, at the age of 15, beat Frank Butler in a shooting contest. She was signed up to perform alongside Frank and Sitting Bull in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, later touring Europe and displaying her skills to its crowned heads. The musical plays games with the true love story between her and Butler, and throws in some traditional female rivalry and 'manly' womanising, but the outcome is never in doubt.
Jason Donovan, formerly of Neighbours, is the draw in the role of Frank Butler. Emma Williams, with considerable musical theatre lead experience, is Annie Oakley, while one time comedian Norman Pace takes the role of Buffalo Bill.
Try harder Jason
Emma Williams is the star of the show. Her second act performance is gutsy, sung with a mix of sweetness and panache which grabs the audience. It helps that she's been glammed up during the interval, a process which apparently takes nineteen of the twenty minutes available. In the first act she can't quite overcome the drabness of her poverty inspired garb, and playing her character as a harsh, unfeminine yet gutsy innocent with an unfathomable and confident talent for handling a rifle she fails to fully connect with the audience until transformed.
In fact the whole show is transformed in the second act. The first is overlong, predictable and repetitive, with a few good songs. The second act is punchy and engaging, though still predictable, but also with a few good songs, some just repeated from the first act.
Good songs are the essential cornerstone of this show. Written by the prolific Irving Berlin, composer of White Christmas, they hit the spot, or they should. The lively numbers, Show Business, Anything You Can Do, and You Can't Get A Man With A Gun, work well.
But the more reflective numbers, The Girl That I Marry, and My Defences Are Down, need a quality voice to bring out their beauty. Unfortunately Jason Donovan's voice just isn't good enough. He's had good reviews for some of his West End roles, but Irving Berlin's ballads require a rich, warm and accurate delivery.
Casting directors should recall that it took the warmth and depth of Bing Crosby's voice to make White Christmas such a success. Frank Butler isn't a very easy role to play in a musical. Annie the heroine loves him, so he should be a 'goody', but he treats her badly and can't cope with her talent beating his, so he's a 'baddie', or just a real man? Whichever, Jason Donovan can't seem to look the audience in the eye and therefore fails to capitalise on the head start his celebrity status brings to the role.
The ensemble work, particularly the male dancing, is very strong and a joy to watch and listen to, as is very often the case these days. British musical theatre these days has masses of talent. Dermot Canavan is entertaining as nervous but crafty and selfish hotel proprietor, Foster Wilson. Yiftash Mirrahi and Lorna Want are loveable and sweet young lovers, Tommy and Winnie.
A seventy year old show is bound to creak a bit. As well as the dated attitudes there seems to be too little plot and much of the time too little movement. The band is on stage throughout, restricting the space available. This might be necessary given the tour locations, but it's disappointing at The Opera House.
There are no surprises here at all, unless of course you were expecting The Deadwood Stage, Secret Love, or Black Hills of Dakota. But that's another musical: Calamity Jane, about another real life sharpshooting female who also eventually appeared in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. It seems to have been a thing.
This production has good moments, but not quite enough.
Annie Get Your Gun
Annie - yee-har
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