When the traveling Buffalo Bill's Wild West show visits Cincinnati, Ohio, Frank Butler, the show's handsome, womanizing star challenges anyone in town to a shooting match. Foster Wilson, a local hotel owner, doesn't appreciate the Wild West Show taking over his hotel, so Frank gives him a side bet of one hundred dollars on the match. Annie Oakley enters and shoots a bird off Dolly Tate's hat, and then explains her simple backwoods ways. When Wilson learns she's a brilliant shot, he enters her in the shooting match against Frank Butler.
While Annie waits for the match to start, she meets Frank Butler and falls instantly in love with him, not knowing he will be her opponent. When she asks Frank if he likes her, Frank explains that the girl he wants will "wear satin and smell of cologne",. The rough and naive Annie comically laments that "You Can't Get a Man with a Gun". At the shooting match, Annie finds out that Frank is the "big swollen-headed stiff" from the Wild West Show. She wins the contest, and Buffalo Bill and Charlie Davenport, the show's manager, invite Annie to join the Wild West Show. Annie agrees because she loves Frank even though she has no idea what "show business" is. Frank, Charlie, Buffalo Bill, and everyone explain that "There's No Business Like Show Business."
Over the course of working together, Frank becomes enamoured of the plain-spoken, honest and tomboyish Annie and, as they travel to Minneapolis, Minnesota on a train, he explains to her what "love" is. Buffalo Bill and Charlie find out that the rival show, Pawnee Bill's Far East Show, will be playing in Saint Paul, Minnesota while the Wild West Show plays in nearby Minneapolis. They ask Annie to do a special shooting trick on a motorcycle in Minneapolis to draw Pawnee Bill's business away. Annie agrees, since the trick will surprise Frank.
As Annie and Frank prepare for the show, Frank plans to propose to Annie after the show. When Annie performs her trick and becomes a star, Chief Sitting Bull adopts her into the Sioux tribe. Frank is hurt and angry, and he walks out on Annie and the show, joining the competing Pawnee Bill's show.
The Buffalo Bill show tours Europe with Annie as the star, but the show goes broke, as does Pawnee Bill's show with Frank. Annie, now well-dressed and more refined and worldly, still longs for Frank. Frank and Pawnee Bill plot a merger of the two companies, each assuming the other has the money necessary for the merger. They all meet at a grand reception, where they soon discover both shows are broke. Annie, however, has received sharpshooting medals from all the rulers of Europe worth one hundred thousand dollars, and she decides to sell the medals to finance the merger, rejoicing in the simple things.
When Frank appears, he and Annie confess their love and decide to marry, although with comically different ideas: Frank wants "some little chapel," while Annie wants "a big church with bridesmaids and flower girls". When Annie shows Frank her medals, Frank again has his pride hurt, and they call off the merger and the wedding. They agree to one last shooting duel. Annie deliberately loses to Frank to soothe his ego, and they finally reconcile, deciding to marry and merge the shows.
The first major shock of the evening was that there was no orchestra, just four upright pianos ranged across the front of the stage where the orchestra pit wasn’t. . This, I suppose, gave the whole evening a folksy, Wild West (or “cheap”, depending on your point of view) feeling, reflecting the period in which the show is usually set. It was a novelty to begin with, but means that you miss out on all of Irving Berlin’s fantastic orchestrations, as well as making all the music seem rather thin and shoddy. Annie Get Your Gun was written in 1946, at the height of the American love affair with the Musical, and having only four pianos pounding away at what should be a lush, razzamatazz score (this is a show about “Show Business” remember) just feels so wrong.
The lights went down (in fact, the lights went up – they were chandeliers made of wagon wheels on ropes which were heaved on by members of the theatre staff – talk about “no frills”). The cheap mustard polyester curtains opened (as they were too long, this meant they swept across the fronts of the pianos – at least one of the pianists had to make a grab for their sheet music as the curtain went past) and the big shock of the night was revealed – this production isnt set in the fabled Wild West of vaguely 1890, but in a vague amalgam of the 1940s and 50s – the time the show was written, rather than the one its set in. This contrasted strangely with the “four pianos and wagon wheel chandeliers” set-up of the auditorium, and makes complete nonsense of a story featuring historical characters such as Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill and Chief Sitting Bull. In fact, the confusion permeates the entre show – the entre’act, depicting Annie’s triumphal tour of Europe, is a projected film incorporating Annie into historic filmreels featuring Winston Churchill (Prime Minister of the UK 1940 – 45 and 1951 – 55), Ghandi (died early 1948), Hitler (dead by 1945) and Chairman Mao and his Little Red Book (published 1964). Part of Act 2, to go by the costumes, is set sometime in the 50s. Was this the director telling us that the story is timeless, or are there shocking great holes in his “concept”?
Another shock is that the stage is only about eight feet deep, presumably because the auditorium has been designed in a way as to get as many rows of seats in as possible. This means that everything is very linear, lots of straight lines and absolutely no room to dance. The director had a cunning plan to get round this last problem – not having a single dance routine in the entire show. Sorry, but when you’ve got no dancing in numbers like No Business Like Show Business you really do start to feel terribly cheated. As I’ve said before, the entire show is about show business, and this production has practically no show-biz in it whatsoever. The set is almost without exception dreary, there's a see-through swing door plonked right in the middle which is very annoying and terribly over-used, and there's a strange upper level to the set giving a small room "upstairs"; thankfully this isnt used very much because practically nobody sitting left of centre out front can see into it. Horribly, the very final scene between Frank and Annie takes place in this and half the audience couldn't see what they were doing.
The lack of pazzaz and sparkle even extends to the cast. Yes, Jane Horrocks is charmingly kooky, and her interpretation entertains for a while, but she’s not a big enough personality to bring the thing off. I have sympathy for her - doing this part must be like playing Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. Every actress who plays this part has to wrestle with the ghost of Edith Evans, and every actress who plays Annie Oakley has to wrestle with the ghost of Ethel Merman, and also the recent memory of Bernadette Peters in the Broadway production. Horrocks just can’t cut it – there isnt enough theatrical weight behind her and Merman wins by at least three falls and a submission, if not a total Knock-Out. There’s also far too much reliance on Horrocks’s established stage persona – slightly Northern vowel sounds, crossed eyes and pursed up lips, which gets tiring after a while - and she doesn’t scrub up well enough to make the transition to glamorous leading lady in Act 2 (although there is a huge, unintentional laugh during Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better when she sings about how well she fills her girdle – Horrocks’s chest is like two peas on an ironing board). Lots of the second act looked horribly under-rehearsed.
Chucky Vennis a complete failure as Buffalo Bill. Not only can he not sing a note, he can’t act, is the wrong ethnicity (yes, I know its called “Integrated Casting” but Buffalo Bill was NOT black), is far too young for the part and is even the wrong body type. We all know what Buffalo Bill should like like – Howard Keel. Big and burly with long white hair and a big droopy moustache. Big Chief Sitting Bull is played here by Niall Ashdown, a tall, pasty-faced caucasian wearing a dreadful “Injun” wig that makes him look like Fenella Fielding in Carry On Screaming (and while I’m on the subject of bad wigs, the ladies in the chorus wear the worst-dressed wigs I’ve ever seen on stage – hideous!).
Still on the subject of hair, the book has also been scalped. There’s an entire romantic sub-plot gone missing somewhere as two major supporting characters have been cut out. A lot of their lines and one of their songs (which has been moved to the second act and, frankly, should have been cut completely) have been given to John Marquez as Charlie and Lisa Sadovy as Dolly. Now, here I change gear slightly and praise something. Marquez is completely wonderful, and is a joy to watch (as he was in The Good Woman of Schechuan at this venue last year. He plays his part with a great Noo Yoick accent, has total mastery of comic timing and could easily play one of the gangsters in Kiss Me Kate, so perfect is his characterisation. Sadvoy however, is far too old for her role, is deeply annoying and looks hideous in her red fright wig. I rather wish that Jane Horrocks had missed the bird on her hat and blown her head off instead.
What the critics said: