A Winning Cast
By David A. Rosenberg
If “pleasant” you want, “pleasant” you’ll get at Goodspeed Musical’s “Annie Get Your Gun.” Add “romanticized” and you have the whole enchilada. Not that the concoction by Irving Berlin (music and lyrics) and Herbert and Dorothy Fields (libretto) was an artistic world-beater when it premiered in 1946. Yet it did rack up a whopping 1,147 performances in New York and 1,304 in London. And its several first-class revivals did star Mary Martin, Bernadette Peters, Reba McEntire and, in the film version, Betty Hutton.
But the star most associated with the show is, of course, Ethel Merman, for whom it was written. The strong-lunged Merm never did display a soft side as Annie Oakley, even when making goo-goo eyes at her co-star, Ray Middleton as Frank Butler. When she belted “Doin’ What Comes Naturally” or “There’s No Business Like Show Business” or “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun,” did it matter that she gave equally vociferous treatment to the less strident “Moonshine Lullaby” or “I Got Lost in His Arms”?
At Goodspeed, director Rob Ruggiero and cast wisely don’t even pretend to match the rambunctious original. Further, the theater throws in the towel on preserving the show’s heritage, deciding instead to use Peter Stone’s politically correct version of the libretto, written for the 1999 Peters/McEntire revival.
Not all the low jokes about Indians have been expunged, however. There’s still a “how” gag, an added groaner about opening a casino and palaver about a half Indian who wants to marry the villainess’ sister. But no more the “I’m an Indian, Too” number in which Annie celebrates her installation into a Sioux tribe. We’ve come a long way, baby, and not only in matters of racism. Imagine, if you can, how risqué these lyrics were to a 1946 audience:
“Some Indian summer’s day,
Without a care,
I may run away
With big Chief Son-of-a-Bear.”
A further conceit has this “Annie” as a play-within-a-play, adding nothing. Still, most of the great Berlin score is intact, including “My Defenses Are Down.” One of the score’s lesser known numbers, it turns out to be the evening’s highlight since it’s sung and danced with wit and abandon by Kevin Earley as Butler and the male ensemble.
Butler is bemoaning his attraction to Annie, the academically challenged sharpshooter who bested him in a contest. Though she’s hardly the “soft and pink” gal he envisions for his wife, they soon fall in love. But they’re torn apart by being in rival tent shows, Pawnee Bill’s and Buffalo Bill’s, each needing the other to survive. The solution is merging the two, which can’t happen until Annie and Frank merge. The outcome is forgone.
Jenn Gambatese is a frisky, hoydenish though not brassy Annie. Her rich and throaty voice, combined with pistol-packin’ acting leave no doubt as to who’s boss. The physical contrast with tall, fresh-faced, big-voiced Earley makes for an effective parlay.
It’s a winning cast, from David McDonald’s commanding Buffalo Bill to Rebecca Watson’s sharp Dolly Tate, from James Beaman’s anxious Charlie to cheerful juveniles Chelsea Morgan Stock and Andrew Cao. And let’s not forget the excellent ensemble, dancing up a storm and singing to the rafters.
Noah Racey’s dynamic choreography varies from lively foot-stompin’ to graceful waltzing. The physical production (sets, lighting, costumes) is, as usual with Goodspeed, amazing for such a small stage.
Will we ever see the authentic “Annie Get Your Gun” again? Not in the current climate, probably. Meanwhile, we have this version, one that is more amusing than funny, more bland than exciting, more an affable while-away-your-time evening than a memorable one.
This review appeared in The Hour, Sunday, May 30