“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.
“Brilliantly performed by Luke Bayer who is having a devilishly good time”
In Dante Alighieri’s ‘The Divine Comedy’, the Underworld is divided into nine ‘circles’ in which sinners were punished in relation to their crimes. The treacherous and fraudulent would find themselves in circles eight or nine, for example. The Seventh Circle was reserved for the sins of violence. This is where we find Desmond Channing, a rather deranged but endearing teenager who is forced into an eternal residency at Hell’s hottest nightclub to retell his tale, night after night. His life was short and his descent into madness rapid. Desmond’s fearless craving for the limelight swiftly morphs into the unthinking terror of a rabbit in the headlights.
The insanely talented Luke Bayer croons through the overture by way of introducing us to the Seventh Circle Cabaret Bar. Bayer is so completely at home you wonder what sins he’s hiding up his sleeves, but a cheeky wink betrays an innocent nod to the fourth wall. This is fantasy, it is fun, and Bayer is relishing every minute. His charm is as infectious as his voice is gorgeous.
We are taken back to the Florida high school where Desmond was president of the ‘Ronald Reagan Drama Club’. He is musical theatre personified. Bayer unselfconsciously and candidly celebrates all the faults and foibles of this particular character (Nora Brigid Monahan’s script is wickedly insightful) as he struts and frets. He is a bit of a paradox; he’s diffident but oh, such a diva! He thinks he’s the king, but he’s such a drama queen. He’s in love with the sexiest girl in the class, but it is clear his interests lie elsewhere. Into his confused life and mind saunters Evan Harris, the cool kid from New York City. Evan steals his girl, his role in the school’s musical, his presidency and ultimately his sanity.
Bayer moves seamlessly between the characters, evoking each with an individualism that relies purely on expression and tone. He pours irony over Evan’s swagger, and charm over the endearing ‘best friend’ Allie Hewitt – the voice of reason; while his Principal Dallas has a playful mix of officiousness and pseudo-sympathy. He not only plays them, but sings them too. The score focuses on Desmond, but the bit parts also have their moments at the microphone. “Strong” is a wonderful number which has Bayer interacting with the house band and teasing the ‘earnest’ singer-songwriter paragon. “The Big Time” reveals another threat in Bayer’s skill set as he nimbly tap dances across the floor. Equally nimble is his hold on the songs, which ooze ‘joie de vivre’. Alexander Sage Oyen’s music and lyrics don’t stray too far from the catchy, pop genre but manage to balance perfectly the upbeat with the ballads, and the anger with the melancholy. It is refreshing, also, to see a show that actively acknowledges the onstage musicians; a skilful trio made up of musical director Debbi Clarke on keys, with Jonnie Grant on drums and Ben Uden on guitar and bass.
Just when we’re wallowing in the whimsical, offbeat rhythms of the night we are given a glimpse of the darker side, and the real reason Desmond is confined to his place in the Inferno. A difficult moment to stage in a space such as the Turbine Theatre, but director Joe McNeice pulls it off, with Alistair Lindsay’s deceptively simple lighting. We are back in Hell, where we started. Desmond has earned his diva title.
Clever, entertaining and deliciously camp, “Diva – Live from Hell” is increasingly uplifting the further it descends into the depths. Brilliantly performed by Luke Bayer who is having a devilishly good time. And so are the audience. The only danger is we might start believing that Hell is so much fun, we’ll all want to become sinners!