Bernadette Peters Rescues New 'Annie Get Your Gun'

Posted: March 07, 1999

NEW YORK — Memo to Barry and Fran Weissler, the principal producers of the revival that opened on Thursday at the Marquis Theatre: For heaven's sake, don't let that woman get away. Pay her whatever she wants for as long as she wants. Post sentries at the bus stations and airports. Indulge her every caprice; send flowers on her dog's birthday. As another musical once declared, anything goes.

The revival is Annie Get Your Gun. The woman is Bernadette Peters, and from the instant she saunters onto the set about ten minutes into the evening, face smeared with grime and her familiar mop of hair in even greater rebellion than usual, she's as indispensable to this production as a respirator to a heart patient.

Yes, I've heard of Ethel Merman, the prototype Annie Oakley in the 1946 musical. For every one of the show's original 1,147 performances, Merman was on hand to belt out Irving Berlin's classic score and portray, more or less, the unschooled, lovelorn sharpshooter created by librettists Herbert and Dorothy Fields. She remains as linked to Annie and its signature anthem, ''There's No Business Like Show Business,'' as any actor ever has been to any show.

But that original production, by all accounts, was spirited, fresh and unpretentious. The one on view at the Marquis, on the other hand, has been ''improved'' in so many wrongheaded ways that if it weren't for Peters and costar Tom Wopat, who plays Annie's handsome, vain rival and would-be conquest, Frank Butler, with genial authority and a robust singing voice, the entire show would fall to Earth faster than the clay pigeons that Annie picks off with such exactitude. And it's Peters who must carry the load.

Lord knows she does her best. Where Merman swaggered through the title role and bent it to her will, Peters submerges herself in it - and once you shake the Merman echoes from your brain (which happens somewhere toward the end of Annie's first number, ''You Can't Get a Man With a Gun''), she has you hooked.

This Annie doesn't swagger; speaking in a wonderfully funny backwoods twang, she's a shy, unlettered, sweet young woman who simply says what she knows to be true. (''Anybody can miss a shot,'' Frank grumbles when she defeats him in a marksmanship contest. ''I can't,'' she cheerfully responds.) She hasn't a shred of guile or ego in her soul, though she can't help preening just a little when she learns what the word champeen means - and that she is one.

She is, in other words, a fully formed character, an endearing innocent even in the less-than-sophisticated environs of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show - in which she becomes a star, loses her man, and learns that honesty has its drawbacks when it comes to romance. She's also a woman with a tender, vulnerable essence that emerges early in the production in her plangent rendition of the gorgeous ''Moonshine Lullaby.''

Peters and Wopat persuasively suggest the reluctant chemistry between Annie and Frank - and they'd better, for the Berlin score is full of duets: ''The Girl That I Marry,'' ''They Say It's Wonderful,'' the contrapuntal ''An Old-Fashioned Wedding,'' and the show-stopping ''Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better).'' And the leads are nicely supported by an able cast that includes Valerie Wright as Frank's snooty assistant, Peter Marx as the company manager, and Ron Holgate as Buffalo Bill.

But the rest of the production does these people no favors. For starters, there's the matter of the book, which has been rewritten by Peter Stone, ostensibly to eliminate the original's condescending view of Native Americans. (Annie's production number, ''I'm an Indian, Too,'' was an obvious casualty.)

Now, rather than being the butt of jokes, the Indians in Buffalo Bill's show tell jokes. Now, a subplot involving two young troupers becomes an interracial romance - Caucasian girl, Indian boy. And now, the whole production is framed by Buffalo Bill's telling how the story happened, which allows it to begin and end with ''There's No Business Like Show Business.''

All this may sound benign, and some of it is, but it doesn't really achieve much. The Indians still aren't much more than window dressing, and Sitting Bull still speaks in the language of Ugh and looks less like any Indian you've ever seen than like an actor named, say, Gregory Zaragoza.

The subplot, often dropped from the musical in its original form, feels borrowed from a show of an altogether different kind - Irving Berlin meets Rodgers and Hammerstein. And the framing device takes ''There's No Business . . .'' out of its natural place in the middle of the first act, where it's a terrific surprise, and makes it just another curtain-raiser.

But if the book's revisions are clumsy or pointless or insufficient, the staging is simply perverse. Annie Get Your Gun isn't Carousel or Cabaret, shows capable of being reinvented by exploring subtexts; it's a simple, four-square musical with no ambitions but to tell a good story and sing some great songs. That, however, is clearly not enough for Graciela Daniele, who has directed the production and, with Jeff Calhoun, created the choreography.

Daniele and Calhoun attempt to modernize the show at every turn, and the result is an evening whose matter is constantly at war with its manner.

In number after number, with tempos often mangled to fit the staging, you feel that Daniele and Calhoun are simply showing off - half-lit dancers gliding in slow motion behind spotlit singers, chorus boys twirling rifles or lying on their backs and wiggling their feet, fog (why fog?) creeping around Annie as she sings her dream ballad ''Lost in His Arms.''

At the start of Act 2, when the Wild West Show tours Europe, we get a montage of national dances a la Ragtime; a short while later, at a party in New York, we get an interminable ballroom sequence a la Cole Porter.

What all this has to do with Annie Get Your Gun is impossible to fathom. Even the technical aspects of the production are disappointing: While William Ivey Long's costumes are up to his usual gorgeous standard, Tony Walton's sometimes-cluttered set design and Beverly Emmons' lighting often obscure Annie's uncomplicated soul rather than serve it.

Still, there's always Bernadette Peters to love, honor and, should she say the word, obey. Quick, Barry and Fran, lock that dressing-room door!

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