“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.
“Rebecca Thornhill is quite remarkable as Rose, establishing her personality as the pushy, determined, possessive matriarch”
Billed as ‘A Musical Fable’ (although the pedants among us would describe it as a parable), “Gypsy” camouflages its many moral messages in a sheer razzamatazz account of the real-life Gypsy Rose Lee; the highest paid striptease artist of her time. Supposedly born sometime around 1910, the date has always been unclear due to her mother, Rose, constantly re-inventing her daughters’ ages to satisfy her own needs and the fluctuating child labour laws. It is Rose herself who ultimately occupies the central theme of what has been described as one of the ‘greatest American musicals’. Then again, it is hard to go wrong with composer Jule Styne, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and writer Arthur Laurents.
Joseph Pitcher’s production is one of The Mill at Sonning’s boldest projects to date which, it is safe to say, doesn’t put a foot wrong either. From the outset we are thrust into the precarious, decadent and exciting Vaudeville world of the 1920s. The overture – worthy of a night out in itself – spills onto and beyond the stage, musicians mingling with cast and audience, characters appearing from suitcases, and a colourful hint of the kaleidoscopic range of Natalie Titchener’s outstanding costumes.
The show displays the contrasting atmospheres of the world depicted. The highs, the lows, the glamour and the shabbiness. Sisters Louise and June are growing up in this world under the formidable shadow of Rose. The ultimate ‘showbusiness mother’, she pushes her daughters into the spotlight and into her own failed dreams with disastrous effects. The more vivacious June is pushed away, while the shy Louise longs for a normal life, eventually eclipsing her mother. Ultimately, she finds her own success in the world she sought to escape, transforming into ‘Gypsy Rose Lee’. Although it is her memoirs that inform the story, it is the mother’s voice that tells it and steals the show.
Rebecca Thornhill is quite remarkable as Rose, establishing her personality as the pushy, determined, possessive matriarch. But far from grotesque. She does monstrous things but is not a monster, and Thornhill perfectly understands that dichotomy. The comedic twinkle is matched by a sincere vulnerability that pulls the character away from cartoon brashness and, amazingly, we end up really rooting for her. If “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” is a showstopping climax to the first act, just wait for her rendition of “Rosie’s Turn” in Act Two.
Evelyn Hoskins, as Louise, wears the timid awkwardness like a mantle to protect herself. When forced to shed this (and, of course, more) her wide eyed abidance is quite moving, tipped by a heart-rending moment when she gazes back at her younger self. The transformation is complete, and uplifting, as she picks up the familiar motif number “Let Me Entertain You”. It’s a fascinating journey. Lost on the way, thanks to the antics of Rose, are sister June (an impressive Marina Tavolieri) and Daniel Crowder’s big-hearted agent Herbie. Crowder skilfully steps through the eggshells Rose has laid, dispelling humour and joy and ultimately heartbreak as the armour of his illusions are shattered.
This fine company brings out the best of Styne’s score and Sondheim’s inimitable lyrics, with choreography and production values to equal any West End or Broadway revival. It is a story of contradictions and contrasts. There is a darkness that is lightened by the witty libretto and sumptuous score, and a hardness that is softened by emotionally charged performances and the slick staging. There are lessons to be learned from the ‘fable’, but it never slips into platitude.
Rose tells her daughters to “leave them begging for more – then don’t give it to them”. This production certainly leaves us wanting more, but gives it to us too. In bucketloads. “Let Me Entertain You” it proclaims. Just try stopping them! A stylish, superbly crafted show that is also steeped in sympathy for the main characters. Since its original Broadway production in 1959, producers have toyed with the ending, often leaving it open as to whether there is reconciliation. This one? Well – just go and find out for yourself.