Beth Malone is back in San Diego after an extended run in the critically-acclaimed off-Broadway musical, Fun Home. The shows looks to be a cinch to transfer to Broadway next spring, and Ms. Malone may well be there with it. But, before that she’s doing a workshop production at the Denver Theatre Center of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, one that will be directed by Broadway luminary Kathleen Marshall with an eye to a mounting it on the Great White Way.
On the verge of stardom? Seems so. And, she’s giving a star’s performance in the San Diego Musical Theatre production of Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun.
Ms. Malone’s Annie emerges as a healthy cross between Bernadette Peters and Reba McEntire, both of whom starred in the 1999 Broadway revival of this musical theatre classic. In her Annie wig, she physically resembles Ms. Peters and brings a similar sense of sophisticated artistry to her performance. But, she also has Ms. McEntire’s ability to “countrify” Mr. Berlin’s plethora of hit show tunes, and she exhibits a relaxed stage presence and easy laugh that allows audiences to go wherever she wants to lead them, even when Peter Stone’s revision of Herbert and Dorothy Fields’ book pushes the racist and misogynistic 1940s humor too far.
Written for Ethel Merman and premiering in 1946, Annie Get Your Gun arguably was among the musicals at the forefront of a “Golden Age” where the escapist fantasies of the Depression era were replaced by stories based on true events, often featuring strong women characters. Annie Oakley was both a poor backwoods young woman and talented sharpshooter. She toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, both nationally and internationally, and she consistently amazed audiences with her shooting prowess.
While the Fields’ book emphasized Annie’s romantic relationship with Frank Butler, another crack marksman, it was the Berlin score that carried the day, with its theme of backstage tumult in an era where shows like Buffalo Bill’s were among the major sources of entertainment in big cities and small towns alike. The musical’s monster hit, “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” is a paean to overcoming that tumult and doing the show – no matter what.
To be sure, there are more than a sufficient number of love songs here: “The Girl That I Marry,” “They Say It’s Wonderful,” “I Got Lost in his Arms,” and “An Old Fashioned Wedding.” But, there’s also the kind of music that might be performed onstage – and always con brio – “Doing What Comes Natur’lly,” “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun,” “My Defenses Are Down,” “I Got the Sun in the Morning,” and the famously delightful, “Anything You Can Do.” If you’re of a certain age, you may well know most of these by heart. If you don’t know them, you should.
While Ms. Malone’s performance is the reason to see this production, the 27-member cast and a 22-piece orchestra give the star plenty of support. As Frank Butler, Steve Blanchard proves to be a good foil for Annie’s high spirits, and John Polhamus, as Buffalo Bill, Paul Morgano, as company manager Charlie Davenport, and Sean Tamburrino, as Chief Sitting Bull, keep the backstage intrigue moving. Steven Rada and Jeni Baker as a pair of young lovers provide a diversion from the main storyline. As Frank Butler’s man-hungry assistant, Debbie David has the most difficult role. She keeps her character from becoming shrewish, but we never quite figure out who she is (and, the script doesn’t give her a lot of help). [php snippet=1]Director/Choreographer John Todd provides high-energy dances for the talented ensemble to execute, featuring lots of high kicks and tumbling runs (even some for Annie’s younger siblings). Matthew Novotny lights the rented sets and costumes expertly. There is no sound designer credited, however, and the production sorely needed one. The internal balances of Don LeMaster’s orchestra were off-kilter, causing it to sound shallow in the house and not to provide sufficient support for the singers. And, while reviewers usually forgive missed opening night cues, knowing that these glitches are almost always temporary ones, there were so many missed sound cues that they interfered with enjoyment of the performance.
But, how often do we get to see the emergence of a new musical theatre star here? Beth Malone’s star is on the rise – catch some of that stardust while you can.