“SuRie, as the gun-toting Annie, carries the show – nailing her character with gunslinging accuracy.”
There could potentially be a fair bit to censure in the 1950s American musical, “Annie Get Your Gun”, especially with modern audiences whose awareness of racism, sexism and cultural sensitivities have shifted since the musical was written. And Irving Berlin’s “The Girl That I Marry” would surely get even the laziest feminist pounding her twitter feed in rage at its undisguised misogyny and condescension towards women. And throwaway jokes about swindling Native Americans out of their oil? Come on! But that is a debate I’m not entering into here. Except to say that the creators behind the inaugural season at Lavender Theatre have rightly decided that we have the wit and imagination to know that we are watching something from a different age. We can cope. And Simon Hardwick’s production, surrounded by the purple haze of lavender fields, shoots down any pre-packed misgivings that people may have in a feel-good blaze of escapism and classic entertainment.
It’s hard to come across a more winning opener than “There’s no Business Like Show Business”, which builds from its mellow summer breeze into a gusty and gutsy chorus, framing the story within Buffalo Bill’s Wild West touring show. Elliot Broadfoot’s impressive presence as Buffalo Bill Cody keeps a tight rein on the action, pinpointing the chapters of what is essentially a good old-fashioned love story. Annie Oakley (SuRie) rocks up into a small town in Ohio, and with her extraordinary shooting skills, catches the attention of champion marksman Frank Butler (Charlie McCullagh). The two are instantly smitten, but when Annie’s rising star begins to outshine Frank’s, the trouble starts.
SuRie, as the gun-toting Annie, carries the show – nailing her character with gunslinging accuracy. Gamine, yet sassily aware of her femininity, her charisma hangs over the stage like aromatic gunpowder. SuRie is clearly “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly”. Equally believable is McCullagh’s Frank Butler. The chemistry between the two cautions us to stand back while sparks fly yet draws us in close to get a true feel for their inescapable magnetism. Drawn into their orbit are a fine cast. Frank’s spurned, scheming assistant, Dolly Tate, is gilded with Chlöe Hart’s comedic flair, while Jay Faisca’s ‘Chief Sitting Bull’ has a self-deprecating gravitas that gives a nod and a wink to the caricature he could be, yet still staying believable.
The open-air setting lends an appropriate festival feel, though more village fete than rodeo. It is as the sun sets that the magic filters through, conjured by and large by Berlin’s iconic songs. The classic foot tappers cannot fail to plant a smile on us, while the more stripped back, softer numbers dig deeper. SuRie’s vocals come into their own during “Moonshine Lullaby”, for example, or “I Got Lost in His Arms”, before rising to the duel of “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)” with McCullagh – a fabulous moment of affectionate rivalry and harmonic one-upmanship.
Everybody wins. The guy gets the girl, and the girl gets her man (after learning, of course, that “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun”). The real winners are the audience. It is a little bit out in the sticks, but that shouldn’t stop anyone making the effort to get there. “Let’s Go On With the Show… Everything about it is appealing”. The newly formed Lavender Theatre are on to a winner with this well aimed revival, that hits the mark.
“The mix of humour and humanity in the story is a brave choice. The comedy is occasionally misplaced, but the morality never misses a beat”
With Remembrance Sunday still very much on people’s minds, it seems fitting to attend a new musical based on one of the unsung heroes of WWII. Gino Bartali was a renowned Italian cyclist who quietly saved hundreds of lives, working to help Jews who were being persecuted by the Nazis during the time of the Italian Social Republic. His fame gave him exception from curfews and regional lockdowns, which he used to carry documents and messages to the Italian Resistance. He later led Jewish refugees to safety in a secret wagon, telling patrols that pulling the wagon attached to his bicycle was all part of his training. Very few people are aware of his contribution and Bartali died with his secret in 2000. “The good is done” he used to say, “Certain medals hang on the soul, not on the jacket”.
It is a remarkable story that deserves to be told, and until now it has only been revealed in piecemeal, or as a cameo in wider reaching documentaries. A 2007 Hollywood film, ‘Lion Man of Tuscany’, was shelved and is as yet unproduced. The question is, though, is it a story that needs to be told in music? With “Cabaret” and “From Here to Eternity” down the road and an imminent West End transfer of “Operation mincemeat” there is the danger of a resistance (dreadful pun intended) to another musical tackling similar themes. The writers Victoria and Todd Buchholz weaken our scepticism, however, with a succinct, clear narrative reinforced by a score that showcases the message without sacrificing the emotional integrity of the characters and the libretto. Although weakened, the question still remains.
“Glory Ride” is a work in progress, billed as a staged concert. In the main house of The Other Palace, it has the feel of a select rehearsed reading, albeit one with a generous guest list. Read and sung on the book, one has to approach it with a different frame of mind, and consequently it is inappropriate to tag any review with a star rating at this stage. With scripts and iPads in hand, the performers are kind of let off the hook, except to say that there is a very fine ensemble of voices on offer.
James Darch as Bartali has the most gear changes as he journeys from wide eyed, adolescent optimist to reluctant hero. Bartali emerges with integrity intact unlike childhood friend turned Italian Fascist soldier (Neil McDermott) Mario Carita. At the peak of his success Bartali withdraws from professional cycling when his younger brother is killed in a riding accident. He could never quite find the anonymity he craved. So, with the rise of fascism, he used his fame to his advantage: for a long time, the Fascist police and the German troops risked causing public discontent if they arrested him. While Major Mario Carita was compiling a list of eight hundred Jewish children to be deported (or worse), Gino Bartali joins forces with Cardinal Dalla Costa (an impressive Ricardo Afonso) and Jewish accountant Giorgio Nico (Matt Blaker, in fine form dishing out comic relief) to save them. Bartali is always one step ahead of Carita in this cat and mouse race.
The mix of humour and humanity in the story is a brave choice. The comedy is occasionally misplaced, but the morality never misses a beat. It is a timely retelling of the journey, but like the hero of the piece who scaled the Alps and the Pyrenees, the creators of the musical might be in for a similar uphill ride. The approach is overcrowded. This is a trial run, and the writing duo can afford to give themselves a slap on the back for now. Without getting complacent. Although not instantly memorable, the musical numbers – very much guided by the script – are wonderfully crafted and varied, with plenty of rousing ensemble moments. The protagonists are all given their solo moment in which to shine. Against the backdrop of a thrilling story, they should be on a winning streak. But to convince that this needs to be a musical is a hurdle that is becoming increasingly difficult to cross. The reception received from the crowd at The Other Palace should at least steer them in the right direction.