Summer Stock Austin’s ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ brings young stars to stage

August 8, 2017

Every year, Summer Stock Austin presents repertory productions of several musicals, classic and new, starring and crewed by the best and brightest of Texas’ young performers from throughout the state’s high schools and colleges. This summer, the series includes “Annie Get Your Gun,” a charming production that introduces a bright new star to the Austin stage, running through Aug. 12 at the Long Center.

“Annie Get Your Gun” is loosely based on the true story of sharpshooter Annie Oakley, a member of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West traveling show in the late 1800s alongside her husband, fellow sharpshooter Frank Butler. Oakley and Butler first met when she defeated him in a traveling-show shooting match, and this meeting becomes the inciting incident in the musical, as created in the 1940s by Dorothy and Herbert Fields, who wrote the book, and songwriting legend Irving Berlin, who wrote the music and lyrics.

The Summer Stock Austin production of “Annie Get Your Gun” wisely uses some of the revisions created by Peter Stone for the 1999 Broadway revival of the show, which eliminates some of the most insensitive and racist caricatures of American Indians that were originally part of the show (though a few wince-worthy moments do remain).

As with most of Summer Stock Austin’s fair, the production most potently serves as a performance vehicle for Texas’ rising musical theater stars, and director/choreographer Scott Thompson puts his vibrant, talented cast center stage with few frills to get in the way of their direct, energetic engagement with the audience. The entire ensemble helps to create a dynamic performance that moves at a rapid pace, with some notable standouts.

Ben Roberts, as Charlie Davenport, is pitch-perfect and hilarious in a thankless role that switches hastily between exposition and sarcasm. David Peña treats the role of Chief Sitting Bull with enough respect, dignity and good-heartedness that he manages to overcome some of the outdated humor. Brian Corkum and Kate Brimmer, meanwhile, as the young lovers Tommy Keeler and Winnie Tate, shine with innocence, charm and great chemistry as both scene and dance partners.

The standout of the show, though, is its leading lady, Trinity Adams, as Annie Oakley. With a vocal acuity that covers both the comedic and romantic sides of the Berlin score and a remarkably expressive face that is able to simultaneously connote comedy and elegance, Adams is a dynamo of musical theater talent, and hopefully we haven’t seen the last of her in Austin. She is aided and abetted in her talent by her leading man, Max Carney, as Frank Butler, whose smooth charm keeps the character likable despite the play’s skewed and sometimes troubling gender dynamics.

Though a classic of the American musical theater, aspects of “Annie Get Your Gun” may not have aged very well. Fortunately, the prodigious strength of its young cast helps Summer Stock Austin’s production overcome this hurdle and create a fun, quick-moving, family-friendly show with a leading lady whose name we should expect to someday see in lights.

‘Annie, Get Your Gun’
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: The Long Center, 701 W. Riverside Drive
Cost: $20-$47
Information: 512-474-5664, thelongcenter.org

Monty Python's Spamalot

With Eric Idle's screen-to-stage musical spoof, Summer Stock Austin makes the Knights of the Round Table so very enjoy-able

REVIEWED BY ELIZABETH COBBEFRI., AUG. 4, 2017

Lydia Kamm as Lady of the Lake in Monty Python's Spamalot (Photo by Summer Stock Austin)

Musical theatre fans will recall the classic Camelot, Lerner and Loewe's earnest and somewhat silly depiction of the court of Camelot and the adventures of the Knights of the Round Table. Then there's Monty Python's Spamalot, an entirely silly depiction of the Knights of the Round Table. Relatively speaking, its humor and commentary fall safely within the comedic range of author Eric Idle (book and lyrics).

Which is to say, it's funny and occasionally outrageous, but not as outrageous as the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, on which Spamalot is based. It's a different creature, really. One is a film that broke cinematic convention with a humor and sensibility rooted in the comedy troupe's Oxbridge background. The other is what happens when you force a movie like that to conform to the current conventions of Broadway shows. For example, the song "Knights of the Round Table" in the film is over almost before it's begun. The humor comes from seeing armored knights form a sloppy kick line, interspersed with quick glimpses of the general nastiness of medieval life. In the musical, it's an extended, polished number whose humor comes from the deliberately over-the-top presentation, with grand costumes and amusing choreography.

Summer Stock Austin's production of Spamalot is strong. The high school and college student company has great singers and dancers, and their many British accents are quite good considering there's no credited dialect coach. (The French is nearly there.)

With this kind of comedy, there's a fine line to walk between overly broad and too subtle, and the cast, as directed and choreographed by SSA co-founder and producer Ginger Morris, finds a good balance most of the time. As Sir Robin, Coy Branscum delivers an especially delightful performance. He occasionally does that surprisingly difficult thing of just standing there without moving his hands or arms, trusting that stillness can sometimes be even funnier than big gestures. Spamalot doesn't afford much in the way of women's roles outside of the chorus, but the Lady of the Lake supplies some truly great songs. Lydia Kamm has an impressive and powerful voice, and she takes a part without much meat and makes it fabulous.

Like Monty Python and the Holy GrailMonty Python's Spamalot is an ensemble show with a lot of talent in the cast. Summer Stock Austin's production is an enjoyable addition to Austin's summer musical season.

Monty Python’s Spamalot

Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside
www.summerstockaustin.org
Through Aug. 12
Running time: 2 hr.

A version of this article appeared in print on August 4, 2017 with the headline: With Footwork Impecc-able

Summer Stock Austin's A Shoe Story

Allen Robertson and Damon Brown's new musical reinvents "The Elves and the Shoemaker" as a timely tale of refugees but in a clever, playful way

REVIEWED BY ROBERT FAIRESFRI., AUG. 4, 2017

(l-r): David Peña (Bo), Megan Hudson (Sydney), and Mariela Denson (Mel) in A Shoe Story (Photo by Summer Stock Austin)

These are desperate days for elves. Their homeland is on fire – literally – and has grown so dangerous that to escape they're willing to cross the border into "The Greatest Country in the World," that is, human territory, where all of elvish extraction is denigrated, derided, and demonized. In such a hostile climate, the homeless elves take care to keep hidden and try to exchange free labor for a roof over their heads – as with a pair who manage to make their way into the waterlogged village of Blorg and surreptitiously take shelter in a shoemaker's shop. Their hope is that in return for turning out some enchanted footwear, the owner will grant them safe haven. All they need, the elves tell her, is "momentary sanctuary."

Yes, the elves in A Shoe Story are refugees, and their status as such in Allen Robertson and Damon Brown's delightfully imaginative reinvention of "The Elves and the Shoemaker" is as pointed as their ears. Just as in the duo's prior musicals for Summer Stock Austin (The Steadfast Tin SoldierTortoise & Hare, and Stone Soup), Brown and Robertson have taken figures of old fairy tale and fable and recast their world in a contemporary mold, loaded with the crises and conflicts that fill today's headlines. It's the team's way of having these timeless characters wrestle with timely moral issues, the very ones the show's young audiences do – such as being different or dealing with others who are different, recognizing the hardships of others and feeling empathy and compassion for them, realizing that one person can make a difference and making the effort to help. The script uses the tale's elf-human division to take on matters related to immigration and refugees, but it also employs the shoemaker's economic situation to address issues about capitalism, like taking advantage of cheap labor and cashing out a profitable business but leaving those who do the actual work out in the cold.

Forgive me if that makes the show sound like a heavy slog. It's anything but. Robertson and Brown's characteristic light touch keeps A Shoe Story on its toes – and don't pardon the pun, because groaners like that are key to the musical's buoyant tone. The elves, you see, have a weakness for wordplay, so much of one they settle disputes with pun-stuffed rap battles. One highlight here is the "shoe-off" between cobbler Sydney and elf Mel in which the two swap as many footwear-themed quips as Imelda Marcos had shoes. On top of being infectiously playful, the number has the rhythm and spirit of 21st century musical theatre – Word up, Lin-Manuel Miranda! – a quality that's heard throughout the score, which adds to A Shoe Story's current and fresh feel.

Best of all, Brown and Robertson understand character, and deliver it in spades. They create figures we relate to and care about, making us want to follow them in much the way we do characters in a Pixar film. A Shoe Story's topicality works in large part because we're worried for the diminutive Mel (played here by the disarmingly droll Mariela Denson) and her Will Farrell elf-sized companion Bo (David Peña channeling Farrell's Buddy: not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree yet true of heart and ever endearing). Also, we don't want to see young shoemaker Sydney forced to give up the family business after 13 generations (Megan Hudson as a sweet optimist fighting to keep a brave face under mounting pressure). So the problems they confront – of prejudice, of poverty, of safety, of fairness – arise naturally from who they are and what happens to them rather than some artificial debate. That "story" in the title isn't just a word; it's what makes the show work.

The Summer Stock Austin student performers get that, too, and every one commits in a personal way to spinning the narrative. They also get the show's humor and play it so the production sports the deliciously subversive streak of a great cartoon – say, Bullwinkle or The Simpsons. And their energy and talent is on par with SSA's other outstanding productions. Thanks to the show's cast and creators, A Shoe Story is at once thoughtful and playful, joyous and feeling, a musical with heart and – you know I can't not say it – sole.

 

A Shoe Story

Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside
www.summerstockaustin.org
Through Aug. 12
Running time: 1 hr., 10 min.