Annie Oakley – Kim Criswell (soprano)
Frank Butler – Thomas Hampson (baritone)
Tommy Keeler – Jason Graae (tenor)
Winnie Tate – Rebecca Luker (soprano)
Charlie Davenport – David Garrison (tenor)
Buffalo Bill – David Healy (tenor)
Chief Sitting Bull – Alfred Marks (baritone)
Foster Wilson – Gregory Jbara (baritone)
Pawnee Bill – Simon Green (baritone)
Dolly Tate – Peta Bartlett (voice)
Minnie – Kerry Potter (voice)
Jessie – Hayley Spencer (voice)
Nellie – Emma Long (voice)
Little Jake – Paul Keating (tenor)
Trainman – Nick Curtis (tenor)
Waiter – Carey Wilson (voice)
Porter – Michael Pearn (voice)
Small Girl – Clare Buckfield (voice)
Mac – John McGlinn (voice)
Indian – Bruce Ogston (baritone)
This reissue of Annie Get Your Gun is well timed, given Richard Jones’s London revival with Jane Horrocks as the eponymous heroine. More important, it’s a fitting tribute to the life and work of American conductor and Broadway specialist John McGlinn, who died last February. Shrewdly, EMI committed themselves to several albums with this conductor, among them a brace of Broadway overtures and fine performances of Show Boat and Kiss Me, Kate! These have few – if any – rivals; ditto this 1990 recording of Annie Get Your Gun, which is still the most complete version on disc.
Berlin’s musical, based on Herbert and Dorothy Fields’ heavily romanticised account of the life of Ohio sharpshooter Annie Oakley (1860-1926), was a smash. The original Broadway cast included Ethel Merman in the name part and Ray Middleton as Frank Butler. MGM brought Annie to the big screen in 1950, with Betty Hutton and Howard Keel in the lead roles. With such fierce competition, one might wonder if McGlinn and his team could even find the target, let alone hit the bull’s eye. Happily, just seconds into the overture all doubts vanish, the London Sinfonietta playing as if to the manner born.
It’s a terrific start, the music of Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show essayed with the oompah of a fairground and the chutzpah of a Busby Berkeley spectacular. But it’s Thomas Hampson’s Frank Butler who promptly threatens to steal the show with his opening number, ‘I’m a Bad, Bad, Man’. This is inspired casting, and even if he lacks the deep-chested delivery of Howard Keel his light baritone is always flexible and full of character. The humour is unmistakable too, as the cowboy Casanova recounts his many conquests. Hampson’s diction is excellent and McGlinn points the rhythms to perfection. What is most remarkable, though, is the irresistible flow of Berlin’s lyrics, mirrored in the never-ending stream of melodies that follow.
Kim Criswell makes her first appearance as Annie in ‘Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly’, ably supported by her siblings. By and large hers is a convincing and colourful Annie, and even though she doesn’t have a big voice it’s clear and she phrases well. That said, she tends to roughen the edge of her words for emphasis – a snarl, almost – a mannerism that may not please everyone. But then she is a bit of a rough diamond, not at all the polished wife Frank yearns for in ‘The Girl I Marry’. And in case you think Hampson is ‘slumming it’ in a musical just listen to how wistfully he sings here. Annie realises that while she is an expert shot her ‘score with a feller is lower than a cellar’. Criswell’s voice may sound a little thin at the top but it’d still a spunky performance.
Oddly enough the biggest number, ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’, may seem a little underwhelming, but that’s probably because we’ve all heard it sung by such big voices – Merman comes to mind – and large choruses. In many ways that’s the real strength of this performance, McGlinn subtle and restrained where others might be brash and bold. That approach is carried over into Annie and Frank’s lovely little number ‘They Say It’s Wonderful’. Criswell sings with great feeling here, her mood matched by ripe, Hollywood-inspired harmonies from the orchestra. Again one has to marvel at the orchestra’s overall polish and their pliant playing, Hampson adding to the mix with singing of real ardour. Wonderful stuff.
Annie sings her siblings to sleep with a surprisingly witty – and bluesy – ‘Moonshine Lullabye’. Prohibition wasn’t such a distant memory in 1946, so Pappy’s ‘little still’ would certainly have struck a few chords with the show’s first audiences. That’s followed by the catchy Tommy Keeler/Winnie Tate number ‘I’ll Share It All With You’, sung by Jason Graae and Rebecca Luker. Their duets – of which this is just one – are not included in earlier recordings or the MGM film; more’s a pity, as there’s much vocal dexterity required here, not to mention some terrific Glenn-Miller-style brass playing from the band.
Act I draws to a close with Frank sounding rather subdued in ‘My Defenses Are Down’. Hampson’s operatic background is evident in the way he colours his voice and phrases his lines, although he is very nearly upstaged by the orchestra’s hypnotic ‘Drum Dance’ and the tom-toms of the ceremony that follows. Hard to imagine why previous recordings omit this terrifically atmospheric music. The Ambrosian singers – perhaps a little recessed here – acquit themselves well, but I do wish Criswell didn’t snarl so much in ‘I’m An Indian Too’. That said, she displays a Garland-like vulnerability in the Act I finale, the curtain falling to some thrilling brass and horn playing from the orchestra.
It’s all change in Act II, with Annie, Frank and Pawnee Bill in Europe, where their two shows have gone bust. What hasn’t changed, though, is Annie’s love for Frank, so tenderly expressed in ’I Got Lost In His Arms’. This is Berlin at his beguiling best, a ravishing little tune that rises line by line, as if to emphasise Annie’s hopes for the future. Criswell brings a genuine sense of longing to this number, McGlinn and his band providing the gentlest of support throughout. Tommy and Winnie reappear in another beautifully choreographed duet, ‘Who Do You Love, I Hope’, yet another of those trip-trip-tripping numbers excluded from earlier recordings and the film. Jason Graae and Rebecca Luker make the most of this catchy little tune, the repetitions of ‘I hope, I hope, I hope’ adroitly done.
There’s no end to the glorious melodies here; Annie, having sold her collection of sharpshooting medals to save the two shows, is jubilant in ‘I’ve Got The Sun In My Face’. The chorus are on good form too, but as always it’s the sheer zest and energy of the orchestral playing that takes one’s breath away. And in a show bursting with big tunes ‘Anything You Can Do’ is one of the biggest. It seldom fails to please and, despite Criswell’s usual mannerisms, it doesn’t disappoint here either. The finale, which includes ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’, brings the performance to a close with all the panache one could hope for. But that’s not all, folks; McGlinn has appended the duet for Annie and Frank, ‘An Old-Fashioned Wedding’, which Berlin wrote for the 1966 revival.
One could argue that Hampson doesn’t sound rough enough as Frank, or that Criswell has the opposite problem, but taken as a whole this recording is still a resounding success. All credit to McGlinn and the London Sinfonietta for turning what could have been just another musical into something so very special. The recording is fine, but the booklet is a bit skimpy. To be fair, though, that’s pretty much what you’d expect at this price point.
Seventy-nine minutes of pure, unadulterated pleasure. Not to be missed.