Monday, January 22, 2018

From the Archives - 'Annie Get Your Gun': Not Just a Shot in the Dark

This article appeared in The Metro Herald (Alexandria, Virginia) on January 22, 1999:

Annie Get Your Gun: Not Just a Shot in the Dark
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

By all rights, this year should be a great one for revivals of Broadway musicals, at least if major anniversary productions are mounted. December 30 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Broadway premiere of Kiss Me, Kate; April 7 will see fifty years since the debut of South Pacific; December 8 will be the fiftieth anniversary of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Hello, Dolly!, after a tryout at Washington's National Theatre, had its Broadway premiere on the night of January 16, 1964, making it 35 years old this month. A Broadway revival of The Sound of Music, which will be 40 years old on November 16, is already into a long run. Others celebrating forty years in 1999 include Gypsy, Once Upon a Mattress (also recently revived), and the Pulitzer-winning Fiorello. And another 35-year-old (September 22) is the great Fiddler on the Roof.

Annie Get Your Gun Bernadette Peters revivalWhat all these great musicals have in common -- with the possible exception of the seldom-produced Fiorello -- is that members of the audience walk into the theatre already humming the tunes. (This is not to be confused with a similar phenomenon that occurs when people see a new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical for the first time.) So it is with the revival of Annie Get Your Gun now on stage at the Kennedy Center Opera House. This 1946 musical, written by the irrepressible Irving Berlin for the incomparable Ethel Merman, is jam-packed with standard melodies that should be familiar to anyone who has owned a radio during the past half-century.

Although the songs are arranged in a different order from the original production -- it now begins with that anthem to performers, "There's No Business Like Show Business" -- each one lands pleasantly and familiarly on the ears: "Anything You Can Do," "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly," "The Girl that I Marry," "Lost in His Arms," "They Say It's Wonderful," "You Can't Get a Man with a Gun," and "An Old Fashioned Wedding," introduced by Merman in the 1966 Lincoln Center revival, a contrapuntal duet no doubt intended to match the success of the similar "You're Just in Love," from the 1950 Berlin-Merman collaboration Call Me Madam.

The team behind this revival of Annie Get Your Gun certainly matches that of the original production, which included Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II (as producers), Dorothy and Herbert Fields (book writers), Jo Mielziner (scenic and lighting design), and Joshua Logan (director). That production was only the second book musical in Broadway history to exceed 1,000 performances (preceded by Oklahoma!).

This revival is directed by Graciela Daniele, fresh from her award-winning choreography for Ragtime; the book has been revised by Peter Stone, who has won four Tony awards; the scenic design is by Tony Walton, with three Tonys, an Emmy, and an Oscar on his shelves; and backed by Tony-winning producers Barry and Fran Weissler.

Bernadette Peters is clearly the star of the show as sharpshooter Annie Oakley. Her name appears above the title, and she can belt a Berlin ballad nearly as well as La Merman herself. The two Broadway divas are similar in many ways: Despite forays into film and television, Peters is known primarily as a stage actress, making her name in Sondheim shows (Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods). Merman seldom ventured into the movies -- she repeated her starring Broadway roles only in the 1936 Anything Goes and the 1953 Call Me Madam. Her greatest triumphs -- Annie Oakley and Mama Rose in Gypsy -- were played by Betty Hutton and Rosalind Russell in the film versions. Go figure.

Bernadette Peters Annie Get Your Gun 1999 Kennedy Center
Unlike Merman, Peters rose through the Broadway ranks in an era in which Hollywood does not automatically produce movies based on hit musicals. In fact, not a single one of Peters' Broadway hits has been translated into film, and only one of her films -- Annie (1982) -- is based on a Broadway musical. So, to non-theatregoers, Peters is known primarily by straight dramatic performances, and they might be surprised to learn that she has such a terrific singing voice.

In general, Peters delivers what her talent and the material in Annie Get Your Gun promise. Her interpretations of the songs are spot-on, although there is a disappointment in "Lost in His Arms." In this instance, Peters seems to build up to a huge climax, but settles down on the approach to the top. Is this her fault, or was it the decision of arranger John McDaniel? Whatever the case, the whole song feels unresolved and unfulfilling.

One serious problem with Peters performance is her cloying, backwoods accent. It is cute at the beginning, but quickly begins to grate. And why don't the three children playing Annie's younger siblings have a similar accent? Peters needs to tone this down. We're not asking for Manhattan here, but we don't need the Beverly Hillbillies, either.

TV star Tom Wopat gives a strong performance as Annie's love interest and rival, Frank Butler. Wopat's Butler is confident without being (too) arrogant.

Daniele's choreography, created in collaboration with Jeff Calhoun, has echoes of her work in Ragtime. Daniele's dancers move geometrically, complexly, exuberantly. It would be interesting to view her work from above, like the June Taylor Dancers on the old Jackie Gleason show.

Some commentators have criticized the revised book for Annie Get Your Gun for being too "politically correct." These critics are looking just at the surface. While it was probably advisable to rid the script of insensitive treatments of Native Americans (one song, "I'm an Indian, Too," has been dropped from the score), the fact is that Peter Stone's new book subversively makes fun of the P.C. crowd. The most "P.C." jokes are, in fact, self-referentially mocking.

All in all, Annie Get Your Gun is great fun and suitable for the whole family. I hope that many Washington area children get their first taste of musical theatre through this show. It wouldn't be the first time: The celebrated playwright Terrence McNally (currently represented at The American Century Theatre with a revival of his first play -- see last week's Metro Herald for a review) decided as a child that for him, there was "no business like show business" when he saw a road company of -- what else? -- Annie Get Your Gun!

Annie Get Your Gun continues at the Kennedy Center through January 24. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8:00, Saturday matinees at 2:00, and Sundays at 1:30 and 7:00 p.m. Ticket prices range from $20 to $75 and may be purchased at the Kennedy Center box office or by calling Instant-Charge at 202-467-4600.

No comments: