The Young Vic Theatre, founded in the 1960s as an alternative to the National theatre, then in residence at the Old Vic down the road, was intended to be a more alternative, experimental space. In recent years it has been difficult to glean an artistic philosophy as the theater was renovated including a second smaller auditorium and a large bar/restaurant that dominates the front of the building (eating and drinking seem to have been the priority in many of the theater renovations in London from the Royal Opera House to Off West End spaces like the Old Vic and Almeida Theatres). But what is the Young Vic now? The best new plays go to the Royal Court, the Bush, the Almeida or, to a lessser degree, the National (Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner does not have the best taste in new scripts). The Young Vic productions I have most admired in recent years have demonstrated a more radical approach to production that sometimes questions exactly what a theater is and what the relationship of performance and audience might be.
ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, the corny 1946 Irving Berlin/Herbert and Dorothy Fields musical, written as a vehicle for Ethel Merman, would seem an odd choice for a production rethinking theater, but Richard Jones, known and often vilified for his radical productions of theater and opera has given the slight musical a different approach. Jones loves to challenge one's sense of the stage space. Here he has reduced it to a low, wide, narrow "CinemaScope" size. The basic setting is a
1950s diner somewhere in Ohio, but this mythical Ohio has cactus. The furnishings of this tacky diner are used to create a railroad train and steamship with the help of a ocnveyor belt with miniature scenery traveling along its path. Wagon wheel ceiling lights like those one might find in an old steakhouse are raised and lowered like the chandeliers at the Met when the lights are dimmed. The proscenium is broken as actors also move into the theater itself. Jones often likes pushing the action as far downstage as possible and this shallow playing area removes much use of depth. There's a small hotel room above the stage used in the first and last scene. The walls of the theater are painted American flag red, white and blue. Lighting is not at all illusionistic. Clever film is used at the beginning of each act. There are a lot of clever effects, but no illusion of versimilitude. Once one accepts Jones's conventions, one can enjoy their cleverness.
Scrawny blond Jane Horrocks is the opposite of Ethel Merman. She specializes in playing strange characters and her Annie is certainly strange. Horrocks has an idiosyncratic, mannered performance style, but so did Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Bernadette Peters and Reba McIntyre -- the other famous Annies. Merman, Martin and Peters were creatures of the stage. None have had successful film careers in part because, already "larger than life", their performances did not work magnified even more on screen. Their singing styles were unique, unlike the bland homogenized sound of the kiddies on Glee. Horrocks's performance is in the tradition of past musical divas. It's a bit demented at times, but so were some of the divas of the past (Carol Channing, Patti LuPone, Betty Buckley). It would not be to everyone's taste, but she looks the part and sings well enough. Annie is a cartoon character after all. Annie was originally tailored to Merman's considerable ego -- of course she thought she was the best shot -- but Horrocks is able to make Annie's self ocnfidence part of a larger character. In a way, she's the traditional "can do" American spirit. Julian Ovendon is gorgeous and sings beautifully.
The book has been doctored to remove potentially offensive racial stereotypes. Annie does not sing "I'm an Indian Too." Instead Sitting Bull shoots the loudspeaker when the song starts playing. And the ending in which Annie throws her shooting match so she can get her man is made less a woman's duty and more about male ego. There's no development of the romance between her and Frank, but that was always a problem with the book. Merman couldn't play love scenes.
The four pianos that provide the accompaniment make a wonderful sound.
Show queen friends of mine hate this production. Like the packed audience in the Young Vic last night, I enjoyed it. ANNIE GET YOUR GUN is not one of the greatest musicals ever written (Oh, if only Dorothy Fields had written the lyrics as originally planned -- Berlin's lyrics tend to be generic and there's one too many comic patter songs) so why not find a new way to see it?