"Annie" is On Target

By Geary Danihy

From the moment Jenn Gambatese galumphs onto the Goodspeed Opera House’s stage as Annie Oakley, cheeks smeared with dirt, buckskin outfit something a muleskinner would disdain, her impish grin and cocky manner tell you that you’re in for a treat…and you are, for as “Annie Get Your Gun” unfolds, Gambatese beguiles both sharpshooter Frank Butler (Kevin Earley) and the entire audience with a delightfully idiosyncratic performance as the backwoods beauty who can shoot the eye out of a flea.

The physical antithesis of Ethel Merman, who originated the role on Broadway in 1946, Gambatese is slight and elfish, and in the early scenes her tomboy bravado makes one think of Huckleberry Finn. Thus, her transition into the be-gowned and bejeweled toast of Europe is all the more enchanting. Slight though she may be, when called on Gambatese can belt out an Irving Berlin song with the best of them, as evidenced by her delivery of “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun” and “I Got the Sun in the Morning.” What’s more, she can act and dance as well.

When called on, she can also ratchet it down, so that the “Moonshine Lullaby” number is actually a lullaby, rather than a clarion call you’ll hear if you listen to Merman on the original cast album.

Gambatese’s performance alone is well worth the price of admission, but you get much more than that for your money, for director Rob Ruggiero and choreographer Noah Racey have crafted a fast-moving, sprightly “Annie” that never let’s the audience catch its breath – as soon one scene is over, Charlie Davenport (James Beaman), the business manager for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, is calling for the next scene to commence – and it does as curtains rise and fall, sets dolly in and out and painted scrims unroll (all thanks to scenic designer Michael Schweikardt).

As is often the case with a Goodspeed production, there’s an energy here that simply doesn’t flag, much to the credit of the entire cast. One might wish that Chief Sitting Bull (Michael Nichols) was a bit less phlegmatic (or bored) or that Buffalo Bill (David McDonald) a bit less avuncular, but by and large the performances are first-rate.

Earley, as Annie’s love interest, has a marvelous voice and though, at least in this role, he is at moments a bit stiff, his interaction with Gambatese is believable. The stiffness gives a certain unwanted tension to the love songs – specifically “They Say It’s Wonderful” – but works to his advantage in the Annie-Frank adversarial scenes, the best of which is the second act’s “Anything You Can Do” number.

However, there’s nothing at all amiss with the emotional chemistry generated by Tommy Keeler (Andrew Cao), an Irish-Indian half-breed, and Winnie Tate (the winsome Chelsea Morgan Stock), both members of Buffalo Bill’s show. They get to profess their love, which is continuously thwarted by Winnie’s sister, Dolly (Rebecca Watson), in a great dance number atop a railroad car in “”I’ll Share It All With You,” and play coy in the second act’s “Who Do You Love, I Hope,” both numbers nicely choreographed by Racey, who also puts a nice touch on the “My Defenses Are Down” number, with a nod to Bob Fosse (Yes, there are hats!)

One measure of a show’s success is the answer to the question, “Would you like to see it again?”

Yes, I’d like to take a second shot at this production, if only to watch Gambatese work her magic, but I would expect there’s a lot more to appreciate in this show on a second go-around. It’s a well-crafted entertainment put together by professionals who know what a musical should be, and needs to be. People come to Goodspeed with the expectation that, whatever the production, they won’t be challenged but they will be entertained (you’ll probably never see “The Threepenny Opera” at Goodspeed). If they buy tickets for “Annie Get Your Gun,” they won’t be disappointed.

“Annie Get Your Gun” has been extended through Saturday, July 3. For tickets or more information call 860-873-8668 or go to www.goodspeed.org.    

This review originally appeared in the Norwalk Citizen-News.

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