Irving — Look at them all: violins gleaming, trombones shining—it’s the big, live Lyric Stage orchestra, up onstage for another of the company’s “in concert” shows, this time a sparkling and funny revival of Irving Berlin’s mid-century classic Annie Get Your Gun.
Of course, Lyric audiences can hear the company’s 38 musicians just fine when they play in the pit. But this sort of semi-staged show gives us the chance to see conductor Jay Dias and the “big band” at work—and yes, it’s nerdy, but what great fun to pick apart the orchestrations in real time and watch the moving parts come back together.
Who needs more scenery? This is a great way to watch a musical.
Ann Nieman nimbly directs and choreographs, and Lyric’s wonderful way with massed voices is on show here. Male, female and mixed choruses all get a chance to shine, and the results range from just fine to “oh, yeah!” in big numbers like “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and “I Got the Sun in the Morning.”
Daron Cockerell, whose crystal-clear voice charmed us in Lyric’s Too Many Girls, makes a delightfully down-home Annie Oakley in this story of the “Little Sure Shot” who charmed the world in the late 1800s. Berlin wrote his Wild West show for Ethel Merman, much-loved by lyricists for being able to get every word of a song to the upper balconies—and Cockerell has that gift, too. She hangs on to a backwoods accent throughout, but we always know what she’s singing. This Annie is a red-headed, feisty girl, quick to fall for Buffalo Bill’s star, the “swollen headed” sharpshooter Frank Butler (Michael Hewitt), but just as quick to insist she can’t be beat, not even by the man she loves.
Making his debut as Frank, Hewitt’s big, operatic voice fills the theater, and he has a beguiling smile to offset the character’s old-fashioned (or do I mean male chauvinist pig?) ways. At times on opening night, he seemed to land flat on a note or two of the melody, but overall was a pleasure to hear. Hewitt sings sweetly for Berlin’s delicate period waltz “The Girl That I Marry,” and he and Cockerell team up beautifully on some of Berlin’s best songs, including the romantic “They Say (That Falling in Love) It’s Wonderful,” and the head-butting “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better.”
Andy Baldwin is brash and funny as Charlie, the harried manager of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, always playing the angles and plotting the next plot. Brian Mathis is dryly funny—and very tree-like—as Chief Sitting Bull, who joins the show as an investor and performer. He’s a man of few words, but every one of them is smart. Good thing, too, since Annie’s “posse” seems none too helpful—Frank is threatened by her success, Buffalo Bill (James Williams) and Charlie are busy scrambling to save the show, and Frank’s assistant Dolly (Janelle Lutz) clearly exists just to be the “mean girl” of the plot. Sitting Bull is Annie’s best friend and advisor; no wonder she’s eager to be adopted into the tribe, though she’s hilariously clueless (“I’m an Indian Too”) about what being a real “Indian” means.
Annie also knows she’s lucky to have more “charming assistants” than Frank: a quartet of smart little siblings, well played by a crew of very young actors, three of them brother and sisters in real life. Jack Michael Doke is sweet and quite funny as “little Jake”—and Nicolette Doke, Alexandra Therese Doke and Camryn Wright as Nellie/Minnie/Jessie show some comic chops too. All of them can sing—in multi-part harmony, yet—a skill they show off in one of the show’s surprises, the little-remembered “Moonshine Lullaby,” a bluesy, Western-swing number (very 1940s) sung by Annie, the kids, and a harmonizing male ensemble trio who made me think of Roy Rogers and his singing cowpokes.
Lyric is doing the slightly revised 1966 version of the show, and using orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett, principal orchestrator for the original 1946 production and the '66 revival. That means, happily, they are not doing the much-changed 1999 version, which tinkered with the plot and axed several songs judged to be dated or un-PC, including “I’m an Indian Too.” For the record, I’d argue that Berlin makes way more fun of what he called “hillbillies” in the song “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly” than he does of native Americans at any point in the show.
Berlin, who was brought in after composer Jerome Kern died suddenly in 1945, balked at the prospect of writing “country music” for Annie. Oscar Hammerstein (Rodgers & Hammerstein produced the show) suggested dryly that Berlin just drop the final “g” on some of the words, and he’d be fine. Critics loved Merman in 1946, but said the show itself was old-fashioned. “You’re right,” said Berlin. “It’s an old-fashioned smash.”
These lyrics may sound simple and conversational, but then Irving Berlin, as musical theater historian Gerald Mast notes, was a master at “making his musical art sound artless.” Simple or not, if some of these lines and rhymes don’t leave you laughing, you’re just not human. Here’s Annie, lamenting the limits of marksmanship in “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun”:
You can’t shoot a male
In the tail
Like a quail
Oh, you can’t get a man with a gun.
For all of us who first heard Annie Get Your Gun in a high school production with a tinkling piano accompaniment—how nice to hear this great score in its full glory. But move fast: as always, Lyric’s in concert show is a one-weekend wonder.
[Additional note to the nerdy: If you’d like an in-depth but accessible exploration of Berlin’s songwriting—and why it’s not as simple as we think—there isn’t a better account anywhere than in Chapter Four of Gerald Mast’s 1987 book Can’t Help Singin’: The American Musical on Stage and Screen.]