The last decades of the 19th century saw a mass exodus of Jews from Russia. They were running away from the tsar and his brutal pogroms and toward America and the promise of freedom and equality. This wave of immigration brought several young talents whose lives would be shaped by the diversity of life in American cities and whose music would define pop music in the first half of the 20th century, including Al Jolson, George Gershwin, Sophie Tucker, and many more. Irving Berlin, the songwriter famous for simple, emotionally direct tunes written in the American vernacular, was one of the Russian immigrants who arrived on Ellis Island. He went on to write more than 1,500 songs ranging from the patriotic anthem “God Bless America” to the sexy “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” Berlin reached his creative apogee in 1948 with his compositions for Herbert and Dorothy Fields’ Annie Get Your Gun, a musical loosely based on the life of Wild West sharpshooter Annie Oakley.
Claiming to know almost nothing about “hillbilly music,” Berlin played to his strength and transformed Annie Get Your Gun into the ultimate homage to the glitz and glamour of show business. Theatre Memphis’ lavish revival of the show takes its cues from Berlin with colorful gowns and eye-popping cowboy duds by resident costume designer Andre Bruce Ward. The cast includes local heavy hitters like Kent Fleshman as marksman Frank Butler and Ashley Bugg Brown as the hilariously annoying Dolly Tate. Kirie Walz brings her big voice and bigger personality to the role of Annie Oakley, a simple, rough-edged country girl determined to get a man with a gun. But musical director Gary Beard and his musicians are the stars of this show. When trumpeter Ben Lewis lets loose with a long jazzy growl, it’s hard do disagree with Berlin’s musical thesis: There’s no business like show business. — Chris Davis