Revival: Still no biz like show biz

Review: `Annie Get Your Gun' takes aim at a musical classic and comes close to mark.

January 08, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

It makes perfect sense -- take a musical whose most famous song is "There's No Business Like Show Business" and accentuate the show-biz angle.

In revising the 1946 Irving Berlin classic "Annie Get Your Gun" -- currently playing a pre-Broadway run at Washington's Kennedy Center -- librettist Peter Stone has turned the original plot into a play-within-a-play.

This isn't the only improvement in the revival, which stars Bernadette Peters as an adorably spunky, love-struck but hard-headed Annie Oakley (and one who is not only in excellent voice, but performs a remarkably athletic stunt just before intermission).

"Annie Get Your Gun" started out as a vehicle for Ethel Merman, with a book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields that was as hokey and old-fashioned as its sappy love story.

That love story focuses on Oakley and rival sharp-shooting champion Frank Butler, played here by a gruff Tom Wopat, who admirably holds his own against Peters, musically and at the trigger.

In its original form, the musical also had a secondary love story, which disappeared from most subsequent productions. Stone has not only restored it, but by making the male half of this second couple part Native American, he has added a touch of political correctness to a show that once treated the cowboys as good guys and the Indians as bad guys. (With such correctness in mind, the song "I'm An Indian, Too" is one of two excised from the production, which also changes the order of some of the songs.)

The subplot restores two charming numbers, "I'll Share It All With You" and "Who Do You Love?", the latter given an especially amusing rendition by the young lovers (winsome Nicole Ruth Snelson and agile, handsome Andrew Palermo).

But back to the show-biz angle. The musical is now entirely set within the tent of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, where, as Ron Holgate's Buffalo Bill explains, he is presenting the story of Oakley and Butler. The production begins with the Wild West Show's company manager, Charlie Davenport (a "Hee Haw" hammy Peter Marx) raising the curtain and subsequently introducing the characters and announcing the scenes.

Fitting as this format may be, it is inexplicably dropped at the end of the production, which would come to a more satisfying and consistent conclusion if, for instance, we saw the roustabouts folding up the tent, just as we saw them raise it at the beginning. (The ending, despite lacking this reference to the show-within-a-show, does benefit from a new, less chauvinist resolution to Oakley and Butler's relationship.)

There are other problematic elements. Graciela Daniele's direction drags at points, such as the coda attached to Peters' opening song, "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly" -- a coda that merely prolongs the excessively cute interplay with her character's three young siblings.

In addition, some of the choreography, by Daniele and Jeff Calhoun, is just plain odd, particularly an overly long military drill performed with dummy wooden rifles and a hoop dance that exists solely to fill time between scene changes.

So does "Annie Get Your Gun" hit the bull's-eye? Or, to borrow the title of one of the many Berlin hits in the show, can "They Say It's Wonderful"? Not yet, but it's on its way.

`Annie Get Your Gun'

Where: Kennedy Center, Washington

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and 1: 30 p.m. Sundays; through Jan. 24

Tickets: $20-$75

Call: 800-444-1324

Pub Date: 1/08/99

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