Friday, August 27, 2010

Gunned Down: "Annie Get Your Gun" is an Epic Misfire

Posted By on Fri, Aug 27, 2010 at 2:17 PM

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Theatre Memphis' flat, surprisingly unambitious take on Annie Get Your Gun could be much better than it is. All it needs is a grumpy old guy in a chair sitting down stage right explaining why theater can be so terribly disappointing. And I'm only half-kidding about that. While sitting in the opening night audience I was struck by the potential serendipity of having Annie Get Your Gun and The Drowsy Chaperone playing in Memphis at the same time. A great production of Annie could perfectly illustrate all the points made by The Drowsy Chaperone's fussy “Man in Chair” character. Although TDC is inspired by 20's-era musicals AGYG , which opened in 1946, is something of a throwback. The plot—part comic melodrama, part romance—is really beside the point. The thinly-drawn story exists only as an excuse to string together some great gags and delightful songs.

Unsurprisingly AGYG is beautifully designed and the cast boasts a goodly handful of genuine talents. But director Jason Spitzer—a fabulous actor who also helmed GCT's unconscionably awful production of Gorey Stories— has stripped the show of anything that might pass for humanity or style. There's too much mugging, not enough choreography, and punchlines are delivered directly to the audience with a corn pone attitude reminiscent of Hee Haw, but less authentic.

It's a shame that this old warhorse has been given the old warhorse treatment. The gun-totin', rootin'-tootin'-ness of it all should really appeal to the Sarah Palin-loving, immigrant-hating TEA party crowd. And God knows those folks could all stand to learn a little bit about Irving Berlin, who escaped from Russia with his family at the turn of the last century and grew up to compose the all-American anthem “God Bless America.” Although it may seem dated on the surface, there's plenty about this show and its back story to recommend it to contemporary audiences.

The supporting cast is a mixed bag. Character actor John McFerrin plays opportunistic hotel proprietor Foster Wilson with all the quirk and detail of a Preston Sturges character while Jeffrey Brewer is a smaller-than-life Buffalo Bill who disappears beneath his Big Gulp hat and luxurious hair. Ashley Bugg Brown, a gifted comic performer who seldom disappoints, seems to be hamstrung by the production's hollow, presentational style and is only occasionally effective as the shrewish bigot Dolly Tate. Shawn Brian Reed is often quite good as Sitting Bull although he's been painted brown and his biggest laugh comes from a gag so offensive my few drops of Native American blood started ghost dancing in my veins.

Kent Fleshman's Frank Butler, the vain, macho gunslinger ousted by Annie Oakley from his position as the star of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, is a little wooden. He's also the only authentically human presence currently appearing on stage at Theatre Memphis. In other words, he sometimes seems completely out of place, as though he might be doing another show. He is paired with Kirie Walz, a vastly gifted performer with a personality that explodes off the stage. But in this production Annie Oakley is never allowed to be much more than a clownish hayseed and there's not enough chemistry between her and Fleshman to fill a test tube.

Theatre Memphis' Annie isn't all bad. The orchestra sounds great and the songs are all lovingly sung. But take that away and there's really not much left. Hopefully for Theatre Memphis that will be enough. It was often enough for an opening night crowd that sang along with every number.

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