Theatre Under the Stars: Anything “Jesus Christ Superstar” can do, “Annie Get Your Gun” can do better

Annie Get Your Gun and Jesus Christ Superstar are the two musicals appearing at this summer's Theatre Under the Stars at Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park.

Jesus Christ Superstar and Annie Get Your Gun – in repertory
produced by Theatre Under the Stars
July 9th to August 16th 2008
Malkin Bowl, Stanley Park, Vancouver BC

It's always the sign of a good show when you spend the next day humming
and singing the songs from the show you saw the night before.  I loved
the movie soundtrack for Jesus Christ Superstar, as it was one of the
first records I ever bought.  I remember seeing Annie Get Your Gun on
television when I was young, and of course “There's No Business like
Show Business” is an Irving Berlin classic song.

Jesus Christ Superstar opened on July 9th, and Annie Get Your Gun
on July 10th alternating evenings for this Vancouver summer tradition. 
The first started off as a concept album before being presented as a
rock opera, while the 2nd is a traditional Broadway musical. Each very
different but both filled with very familiar songs. Irving Berlin was a
mainstay for popular music in the 1930's and Annie Get Your Gun is
pretty well a musical masterpiece.  Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote Jesus
Christ Superstar early in his musical career, long before his Phantom
of the Opera masterpiece.

Jesus Christ Superstar opens with the character Judas feeling that Jesus is going down the wrong path in his ministry, affected by the huge rising popularity.  This sets the dynamic tension between the two pivotal characters.  Songs in the first act are memorable with “Everything's Alright” and “I Don't Know How to Love Him.”  Costumes are contemporary as soldiers carry rifles instead of spears, and allusion is made to current political tensions in the Middle East.

Mat Baker does a splendid job as Jesus.  He sings well and carries himself believably with compassion.  Adam Charles seems to play Judas as a punkish angry young man, which short changes the depth of love that Judas has for Jesus. Tamara Vishniakoff has a strong voice, and plays a credible Mary Magdelene but she rushes her beautiful aria of “I Don't Know How to Love Him.”  The first act closes with Judas' decision to betray Jesus. 

Annie Get Your Gun opens with the “Buffalo Bill's Wild West” show coming to town where the show's sharp shooter Frank Butler challenges anybody in Cinncinati Ohio to a contest.  Young Annie Oakley shows up from the backwoods as a sharp shooting country bumpkin and ends up falling in love with Butler without realizing that it is him she will be facing in the shooting contest.  This sets up a competitive rivalry that dooms their romance but also drives them together.  Songs such as “No Business Like Show Business” and “They Say it's Wonderful” are standards that will bring back familiar memories even if “The Girl That I Marry” was sung by Kirsten Dunst in Spiderman 3.

Meghan Anderssen is spectacular as Annie Oakley, and Warren Kimmel strongly plays her foil Frank Butler.  While the show plays up its campy humour, everything seems to fit perfectly.  Anderssen as the backwoods Annie sings “Doin' What Comes Natur'lly” and “You Can't Get a Man with a Gun” with a no-holds-barred intensity. 

Jesus Christ Superstar's spare set is used well simulating both temple interiors and exteriors, but the overall blocking of the cast is stilted and doesn't utilize the stage well. A round turning stage in the middle is used to good effect for scenes when Jesus is approached by the lepers, and well as the ensemble pieces such as Hosanna.  Contrarily, Annie Get Your Gun features a lush set with large curtains that simulate both a circus big top and later a New York ballroom.  The turning stage reveals its true purpose under the big top of Wild Bill's Wild West show.

The second act of Jesus Christ Superstar is dark as it focuses on Judas' betrayal and the crucifixion of Jesus.  King Herod's Dream is a campy highlight that portray's Herod as a “king of  bling” gangsta pimp. And while songs like “Could We Start Again Please” and “I Only Want to Say” are powerful ballads, much of the music is bombastic 4/4 rock and funk, which does not make a nice relaxing evening in the park.

The second act of Annie Get Your Gun opens with Annie and Frank on two separate continents in two different Wild West shows after an aborted marriage proposal.  But by chance, the two groups come together in New York. Annie is a much more mature and worldly woman, singing “I've Got the Sun in the Morning and Moon at Night.”  The action culminates in the immortal song “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better.”

Intercultural content for JC Superstar harkens to the clash between religions and cultures, and how both Pilate, Herod and the Church of the time all felt threatened by the rising popularity of Jesus.  The United Nations charter of Human Rights did not exist at the time to assert “peaceful right to co-existence” and we all know what happened to both Jesus and Judas, end of story.

Annie GYG was re-written to expunge its dated view of First Nations people.  Songs like “Colonel Wild Bill” and “I'm An Indian Too.” have been dropped.  Chief Sitting Bull is a wise elder that gives Annie advice.  And… there is an intercultural romance between two performers of the Wild West show, that is threatened because the young woman's older sister doesn't like the fact that her younger sister's suiter is of mixed heritage being half First Nations… (okay they say the word Indian in his show).

It's hard to compare two very different shows.  JC Superstar has
dancing go go girls and Annie GYG has corset and fishnet clad circus
performers.  JC Superstar has a soaring ambitious musical score with
screaming guitars, and Annie GYG has a swing orchestra with soaring
violins.

But while Jesus Christ Superstar somehow felt still unfinished and in need of another week's rehearsal, Annie Get Your Gun showed up on opening night with both guns blazing, and deservedly earned actor Meghan Anderssen a standing ovation.  Her energetic slapstick acting is perfect for the role. If there's only one night to go to Theatre Under the Stars, then go see Annie.  But be warned, with either show, you will be humming the songs the next day.

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