There truly is no business like show business. Only in show business could you take an old-fashioned product, add a few new quirks more in tune with the time, and create a hipper version that resonates with the glamour of the original and pleases modern audiences.
That’s exactly what producers Barry and Fran Weiser, of the acclaimed revival Chicago, did with Irving Berlin’s classic Annie Get Your Gun. They masked the outdated elements of the musical with new phrases and words such as “pistol-packing mama” and “loco” but managed to retain the authenticity of the original. The result is a delightfully humorous and mesmerizing musical.
The show opens with a resounding rendition of “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” which is a switch from the original version that opened with the townspeople welcoming Col. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. The minor alteration has a remarkable effect.
The audience is captivated from the first moment Frank Butler (Tom Wopat) stands on the dark stage with a single spotlight beam illuminating his husky figure. Slowly, he begins to sing the opening of the famous song a cappella. In a few short moments, the beat hastens, the orchestra and ensemble members chime in and toes are tapping to the music.
When Annie Oakley (Bernadette Peters) swaggers onto stage, she engages the audience with her naivet? and unrefined qualities. An illiterate, unbathed country bumpkin who’s handy with a gun, Annie enters town to sell her game to a local inn keeper. The innkeeper witnesses her sharpshooting abilities and selects her to compete against Frank – the greatest shot in the world – in a shooting match. Her talents with a rifle are clear, but her admiration for Frank is even more obvious.
After demonstrating her shooting prowess, Annie is invited to join Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show as Frank’s assistant, occasionally shooting things. The longer Frank and Annie work together, the more stardom Annie achieves and the more the sharpshooting duo fall in love. Nonetheless, Frank struggles with Annie’s ability to outshoot him, and her keen talent and rising fame in the Wild West Show hinder their burgeoning relationship.
Although minor changes were made in the script and score, the greatest alterations are to the characters. Peters redefines the Annie Oakley that Ethel Merman made famous in the 1946 original. Peters creates an Annie reverberating with wit and self-assurance. The sting from remarks lingers far after the smoke from her rifle clears. While Annie can’t read or write, she is smart and quick-tongued. With an unpolished demeanor, she says what everyone else merely thinks. Her charisma is irresistible and it is understandable why Frank’s “defenses are down.”
Best known as Luke Duke on the “Dukes of Hazzard,” Wopat captures the essence of the macho sharpshooter in his portrayal of Frank Butler. His Frank, however, assumes a softer edge than the one of previous years. His strong stature and bellowing voice make his presence powerful, yet he unabashedly reveals his weaknesses. Wopat’s Frank maintains his macho facade but allows the gentler angles of his persona to surface.
Alone, Peters and Wopat are brilliant; together, they are indescribable. Saying they have chemistry is an understatement. The believability of their relationship is the foundation on which the success of the musical rests. Peters and Wopat give Annie Get Your Gun an unfaltering, unbreakable cornerstone on which the rest of the show relies.
Their rendition of “Anything You Can Do” is wondrously humorous. On each song, Wopat’s and Peters’ eloquent voices blend to perfection.
The other cast members build on Peters’ and Wopat’s solid foundation. Ron Holgate as Buffalo Bill and Peter Marx as Charlie Davenport, the manager of the Wild West Show, add comical moments. Gregory Zaragoza gives a strong performance as Chief Sitting Bull. Valerie Wright portrays Dolly Tate, Frank’s assistant and old flame who still is stuck on Frank. Playing the materialistic, snooty Dolly, Wright creates a character the audience hates but simultaneously likes (see related story).
The one downfall in the show is the relationship between Winnie Tate, Dolly’s younger sister, and Tommy Keeler, a knife thrower in the show. Their romance is a subplot to the main love story, but the scenes intended to reveal their feelings are too short and too infrequent. The audience never roots for them to come together as it does for Frank and Annie. Furthermore, Nicole Ruth Snelson as Winnie and Andrew Palermo as Tommy give mediocre performances. Although their dancing is entertaining, their voices are weak. No sparks fly between the two actors, and their songs serve only to lengthen an already long show. The 1966 production of the musical omitted these roles, and this version should have done the same.
On its way to Broadway, Annie Get Your Gun is ready for the big time. It is smart and playful. Peters and Wopat give impeccable performances as Annie and Frank. The supporting cast is excellent, with only one exception. However, in the end the weakness of the Winnie and Tommy subplot should be overlooked because of the strength of the main story. Annie Get Your Gun is as sure a shot as Annie Oakley’s.
Annie Get Your Gun continues at the Kennedy Center in the Opera House through Jan. 24.