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