A good shot at splendor

Review: `Annie Get Your Gun' showcases great musical talent.

April 05, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

"Annie Get Your Gun" is by no means a surefire show to revive. Although it has one of the richest scores ever written for a Broadway musical, it also has a book that is pure hokum, peppered with racist cracks about Native Americans.

The touring production of the hit Broadway revival at the Mechanic Theatre has a lot going for it, including a cleverly re-crafted book and a fine cast. Writer Peter Stone, a master at dealing with difficult material, has revised Herbert and Dorothy Fields' 1946 script in a manner that turns corniness into charm.

He accomplishes this by framing the story as a play-within-a-play: The love story of rival sharpshooters Annie Oakley and Frank Butler as presented by Buffalo Bill in his Wild West Show. At the start of the production, Buffalo Bill (George McDaniel) cranks up the curtain and introduces the principals; the orchestra is an onstage cowboy-clad band; and the company manager (Joe Hart) calls for the actors to set up the various scenes.

A slightly different spin on the usual order of things, "Annie Get Your Gun" is a love story in which Girl gets Boy, Girl loses Boy, Girl gets Boy. In other words, Annie Oakley initiates the action, and the actress playing the role usually gets top billing. The show was written for Ethel Merman, and the Broadway revival re-tailored it for Bernadette Peters, with more sass and less brass.

Because he has the bigger name, Tom Wopat, who plays Frank, gets top billing on tour. And the former "Dukes of Hazzard" star does a highly commendable job, whether casting knowing glances at the audience (an acceptable ploy given the show's presentational structure) or delivering such Irving Berlin classics as "The Girl that I Marry" or "There's No Business Like Show Business" in a honeyed baritone that could turn a girl's head.

Wopat, who originated the role in the 1999 Broadway revival, has sung these songs to a half-dozen leading ladies. The latest, Karyn Quackenbush, is a relative unknown who understudied - and played - the role on Broadway and has just taken over the lead on tour. She's a fresh face who splendidly exemplifies her guileless character, bringing twangy tomboy spunk to "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly" and "You Can't Get a Man With a Gun," and starry-eyed innocence and lush romance to the lilting solo, "Lost in His Arms."

Despite some minor glitches attributable to coming off a monthlong hiatus, the rest of the cast also fared well, particularly when executing the nimble, frequently funny choreography of Jeff Calhoun, who also directed the production. Tony Walton's tent-based set and William Ivey Long's Western costumes add to the countrified aura.

The show-within-a-show format isn't the production's only revision. As is true in Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew," in the traditional ending for "Annie Get Your Gun" the leading lady capitulates in a manner as out of character as it is anti-feminist. Author Stone smoothes that over, and he also has the Native Americans making the jokes, instead of bearing the brunt of them.

In addition, Tommy Keeler (Sean Michael McKnight), the love interest in the show's subplot, is now half-Native American, and the offensive number, "I'm an Indian, Too," has been cut. There's also a more logical re-ordering of the remaining songs, which include the delightfully comic, "An Old-Fashioned Wedding," written by Berlin for the 1966 Lincoln Center revival.

By today's standards, "Annie Get Your Gun" is hardly a sophisticated musical, but it is a magnificently melodic one. Compensating for the former while capitalizing on the latter, it hits the target.

`Get Your Gun'

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza

When: 8 tonight through Friday; 2 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m., 6:30 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $21.50-$69

Call: 410-752-1200

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