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Review: `Annie Get Your Gun’

This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 5, 1999. All rights reserved.

Give or take a few Rodgers and Hammerstein opuses of

the 1940s and ’50s, "Annie Get Your Gun" could be aptly described

as the definitive musical comedy of Broadway’s Golden Age. If it had

nothing else but the Irving Berlin score to recommend it, it would

be enough for most folks. Remember, this is the vastly entertaining

show that centers around the rivalry and romance between sharp-shooters

Annie Oakley and Frank Butler, and that features the song "There’s

No Business like Show Business," the theatrical profession’s adopted

anthem.

Any show that has the good fortune to have that song, let alone the

other dozen hit tunes, would seem to have a guarantee of success.

Given the memorable score by a musical genius who never quit reminding

us that every song in a musical has the right to be a hit, "Annie

Get Your Gun" could always be counted on to flood our senses with

melody and charm. Don’t get your hopes up yet.

For over 50 years, the lively and humorous book that Herbert and Dorothy

Fields whimsically based on an American folk legend and on the legendary

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, had no trouble giving people a good

time. So what does it take to ruin a grand old show with every character

a stereotype, and whose only agenda was to have a big cast hoopin’

and hollerin,’ enjoying a rip-snortin’ jamboree dressed up as cowboys

and Indians?

A tribe of unsatisfied P.C. types have had their way with "Annie

Get Your Gun," and now she’s shooting blanks.

What could possibly have been so offensive about the original text

and a couple of songs to warrant such ridiculous excising and wholesale

butchering? Was this revision of a terrific show meant to please (or

is it appease?) today’s more hip, but more easily offended audiences?

Are the producers — Barry and Fran Weissler — serious about

their intent to spare Native Americans and liberated women’s sensibilities

by removing such innocuous and demonstrably silly songs as "I’m

An Indian Too," and "I’m a Big Bad Man"? More importantly,

why is the director, Graciele Daniele, oblivious to the show’s deadly

pace and the awkwardness of this new but dead-on-its-feet version?

Are the inane and pointless additions (mostly crass sexist jokes)

inserted by book-reviser Peter Stone actually an improvement? I think

not.

In Stone’s P.C.-punctuated re-evaluation, Bernadette Peters, a musical

star who seemingly could do no wrong, plays Annie Oakley, and does

everything wrong. Her Oakley may still go idiotically ga-ga over the

rakish Frank Butler, but she also adopts a staunch feminist front

and on the way goes to bat for Indian rights. Who would have thought

that the adored and adorable Peters could be so recklessly misled

by the powers behind this mish-mash of illogical ideologies.

It isn’t bad enough that the new jokes are tasteless and unfunny,

and that the leading and supporting players, most of them too poorly

played to waste time mentioning, have all had their original naivete

replaced with puerile sophistication. Yet the worst crime is that

the talents of our leading lady are being wasted.

I have always loved Peters, and there hasn’t been a moment of her

on-stage in anything that wasn’t a complete and total joy. As Annie,

Peters affects a drawl so ludicrous and unidentifiable it would give

pause to Ma and Pa Kettle. Except for her gorgeous singing, Peters’

lackluster performance can best be described as slumming. And the

only dancing Peters is asked to do appears to be a clog for two left

feet. One might almost suspect that Peters, who, in this version,

plays an actor in a show who plays the part of Oakley (more about

that later), is just as confused as we are about who she is supposed

to be.

While no one would ever expect Peters to emulate either the bombastic

Ethel Merman (the show’s original star) or the frenetic Betty Hutton

(in the film version), there is no denying that an Annie Oakley without

spunk and energy is not anybody’s idea of the rifle-totin’ hillbilly

gal with stars in her eyes. For that matter, and except for the songs

that Peters sings in a self-serving cabaret style that seems twice

removed from the show, there isn’t a good idea going for this show.

I must admit that the audience at the performance I

caught responded enthusiastically to standards like "The Girl

that I Marry," "You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun," and "They

Say It’s Wonderful." That they might not realize how many of the

songs, basically wrecked by Bruce Coughlin’s abysmal jazzy orchestrations,

made no sense in the order they were sung. However, Peter’s rapturous

center stage renditions (sans drawl) of "Moonshine Lullaby"

and "Lost in His Arms" only made us glad that the rest of

the show could be momentarily forgotten.

Barely dashing enough for a road company Frank Butler, Tom Wopat does,

at least, present a macho image, something that is noticeably absent

from both the cowboys and Native Americans. Wopat sings nicely but

his clowning of the jazzed up "My Defenses Are Down" fails

to make the song’s otherwise romantic point, especially given the

ridiculous chorus-boy enhanced ending tagged on by Daniele and Jeff

Calhoun. What little other dancing there is, is regrettable.

The catchy counterpoint ditty, "Old-Fashioned Wedding," that

Berlin wrote at age 78 and interpolated into the show for the 1966

revival with Merman, is in for the ride, but fails to make the usual

impact. If that Act II number doesn’t stop the show, then something

is serious wrong.

This new concept for "Annie Gets Your Gun" places the action

under designer Tony Walton’s festive big top wherein all the scenes

are played, and a company of actors assumes their roles. It is a far

cry from "Kiss Me Kate," wherein we are humored by the actors’

personal affairs as they are paralleled with the characters they are

playing in "The Taming of Shrew." In this "Annie Get Your

Gun" we never know the actors as interesting people, but only

as the portrayers of once endearing characters who are now no more

than fakes in a phony side show. H

— Simon Saltzman

Annie Get Your Gun, Marquis Theater, 1535 Broadway between

45 and 46. 212-307-4100. $35 to $75.


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