It’s been a year of change at Sheffield Theatres as Robert Hastie has taken on the task of filling the considerably large shoes of Daniel Evans as Artistic Director. And while it’s still too early to judge Hastie’s reign, the early signs are good – with a gender-balanced staging of Julius Caesar and a major new production of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under The Elms to come next year – and it’s reassuring to see he’s following Evans’ lead when it comes to the Christmas musical.
For, over the past few years, the Crucible has specialised in producing festive alternatives to pantomimes. While some haven’t been especially Christmassy (indeed, the local paper was filled with angry letters a few years ago, demanding Evans be fired for daring to stage Sondheim’s Company), there’s been such treats as Dominic West in My Fair Lady, the exhilarating tap-dancing spectacular of Anything Goes, and last year’s superlative Showboat.
Annie Get Your Gun is an interesting choice for 2016’s selection because it is, let’s face it, one of Irving Berlin’s weaker works. Even the great man himself had so little faith in it he nearly scrapped it altogether before being persuaded otherwise. Today, its flaws are easy to see: the plot is pretty wafer-thin, there are some pacing issues, especially in the second half, and some of the gender and racial attitudes (looked at from a 21st century perspective, at any rate) are pretty old-fashioned – although, thankfully director Paul Foster has opted to use the 1999 rewrite of the book by Peter Stone, which smoothes out some of the more problematic attitudes towards Native Americans.
And yet, from the minute that the deep baritone of Ben Lewis fills the theatre, as he walks through the aisles towards the stage singing There’s No Business Like Show Business, you can’t help but be swept away by this loveable bit of old hokey. Foster is an absolute master at putting on song and dance spectaculars, and when you have songs as iconic as this to play with, you can’t really go wrong.
Although There’s No Business… may be reprised a few too many times, there’s also classics like You Can’t Get A Man With A Gun, The Girl That I Marry and, of course, Anything You Can Do. All of them are staged with an energy and joy that can leave you breathless, especially when combined with Alistair David’s often spectacular choreography. Even on the somewhat less well-known numbers, such as Who Do You Love, the ensemble’s dancing is often dazzlingly impressive.
However, the songs aren’t even the main stars here: that honour goes to Anna-Jane Casey who, after many years playing supporting roles at the Crucible in productions like Company and Flowers For Mrs Harris, finally gets a lead role to sink her teeth into. And she grabs it with both hands, imbuing Anna Oakley with a pocket-sized burst of energy and charisma that never stops flagging. Within a couple of minutes of being on stage, she’s already perfected a trademark chuckle, and her singing voice, especially on Moonshine Lullaby and I Got The Sun In The Morning, is outstanding. She’s impossible to take your eyes off throughout.
Lewis is equally good as Annie’s great love Frank Butler, and there’s excellent supporting work from Lauren Hall and Cleve September as the musical’s other couple, Winne and Tommy. After the whirlwind first half, the pacing does seem to flag after the interval when the focus shifts away from Annie and Frank’s romance. It’s only when Frank re-enters the scene, with a marvellously comic version of Anything You Can Do, that the chemistry is reignited.
Despite this, Laura Hopkins’ clever rotating stage design and the sumptuousness of the costumes are guaranteed to stop anybody becoming bored, even during the quieter moments of the show. Annie Get Your Gun may have its flaws (mainly thanks to its source material), but it continues Sheffield’s tradition of providing a feel-good, family friendly alternative to the panto dames and thigh-slapping principal boys at this time of year.
Annie Get Your Gun is on at the Crucible until 21st January 2017. Click here for more details.