John P. McCarthy
- OnStage Associate New York Theatre Critic
Elmsford, NY – Westchester Broadway Theatre’s mounting of the seminal musical “Annie Get Your Gun” harkens back to a simpler time, both socially and artistically. That’s a good thing if you have a robust appetite for Irving Berlin’s terrific score and not so good if you have a low tolerance for the hokier aspects of the show.
“Jumping geraniums!” exclaims hick sharpshooter Annie Oakley after she and her rival Frank Butler kiss for the first time. That phrase sums up the non-musical idiom in store for theatergoers; and, while it comes with the territory, it certainly has the potential to grate.
There are other reasons, apart from Berlin’s music, that “Annie Get Your Gun” has endured. One is the universal relevance of its battle-of-the-sexes storyline, which was based on the exploits of a real-life figure, Phoebe Ann Mosey. Nearly a century before Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs squared off on the tennis court, Mosey, who took the stage name Annie Oakley, entered a shooting contest against her future husband, professional marksman Frank Butler.
The extent to which Annie’s prowess with a gun upends gender roles is one sign that the show, following Mosey’s story, was forward-thinking for its day, even if her superiority is ultimately muted by the conventions of musical theater and social norms concerning romance. “Annie Get Your Gun’s” feminism is pretty progressive when seen in an historical context. After all, it premiered on Broadway (in May of 1946) only twenty-six years after the 19th amendment to the Constitution was ratified and women gained the right to vote.
A not-so-positive way in which WBT’s production references the past is evident in the opening number, which feels very 1970s mostly due to the costuming. Chorines wear lavender colored skirts that resemble curtains that have been pressed into duty in a pinch. They bring to mind that “Carol Burnett Show” skit about Scarlett O’Hara’s improvisational dressmaking skills and the draperies of Tara.
Even more unfortunate are the garishly purple, shiny and ill-fitting polyester trousers worn by the male chorus members during the number. Other wardrobe misses in Act One include Buffalo Bill Cody’s unflattering get-up and wig, and the railroad engineer’s cap on Annie’s younger sibling. But designer Kara Branch recovers in Act Two when the company is turned out in resplendent formal wear.
Director Richard Stafford’s choreography also contributes to the perception that this production is often stuck in a bygone era. The ensemble members gamely try to look comfortable executing his athletic, ballet-like steps. It’s as though Bobby and Cissy from “The Lawrence Welk Show” were being asked to kick it into a higher, more strenuous gear. And when it comes to the principle characters, Stafford tends to give them too little movement. While performing the signature song “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” Frank, Buffalo Bill and road manager Charlie Davenport awkwardly skip around the stage until Annie joins them and provides a focal point. And during the show’s tap number, it’s hard to appreciate the dancers or the dance because the chorus wears the dreaded purple outfits again.
Fortunately, the show finishes strong and the musicianship is solid. Under Shane Parus, the band sounds quite good and the rhythm and syncopation never flag. All aspects of the production – music, singing and costumes – gel nicely during “I Got The Sun In The Morning.”
As Annie, Devon Perry (who played Dorothy in WBT’s 2014 production of “The Wizard of Oz”) has a pleasant voice that’s beautifully showcased in two lyrical and less manic songs, “Moonshine Lullaby” and “I Got Lost in His Arms”. Adam Kemmerer brings a warm sound to Frank Butler, if not an imposing stage presence or physicality. Generally, the two leads mesh well.
The sets are fairly simple by WBT standards. To help set the scene, black-and-white photographs are projected onto a scrim at the back of the stage. In one instance, however, as Buffalo Bill’s traveling exhibition approaches Minneapolis-St. Paul by train, the image of a western mountain town doesn’t match the Minnesotan topography. It’s an example of where accuracy and literalness are important. On the other hand, while the round hydraulic platform in the stage floor isn’t raised during the show, it’s outer edge is painted to suggest a target – a nice touch that works because it’s only a suggestion and the designers don’t go too far in depicting a bulls-eye.
At certain times, this production of “Annie Get Your Gun” demonstrates the wisdom of Chief Sitting Bull’s proscription against putting his money into showbiz. But of course Sitting Bull (the delightful Marshall Factora) violates his own rule and does finance a theatrical venture. And it’s easy to see why. The world of entertainment, and musical theater more specifically, is downright alluring and infectious.
How can you resist when the material on offer features a marvelous score by Irving Berlin? And when a group of performers come together to render it with such enthusiasm and aplomb? Flaws and all, it’s a joy to behold – provided you’re not expecting anything radical or innovative, and as long as you don’t mind a generous helping of corn with your supper.
Westchester Broadway Theatre’s production of “Annie Get Your Gun” runs through November 26, 2017 and from December 28, 2017 through January 28, 2018 at One Broadway Plaza, Elmsford, NY. Photo Credit: John Vecchiolla