by Sharon Falduto
Photos by Jackie Blake Jensen Photography
Coralville – I had personal reasons for wanting to be the reviewer for City Circle’s production of Annie Get Your Gun. For one, I’ve been a fan of Irving Berlin for most of my life. Chances are, I was one of the few 13-year-olds in 1986 who had a cassette of Bing Crosby singing Berlin’s hits on her Walkman. Also, my oldest daughter portrayed Annie Oakley in her 6th grade class’s “wax museum,” so I thought she should see the musical of Annie Oakley’s life.
Annie Get Your Gun is part of City Circle’s season of strong women, and I would argue that Annie Oakley is the character this year who most fits that bill. Annie is no shrinking violet. Although the nominal plot is that she tries to alter her ways to be more feminine to catch her man, Frank Butler, in truth she finds that she is unable to stop herself from being a better sharpshooter than Frank at every turn.
Annie Get Your Gun’s tale of the complicated and bombastic romance between these two sharpshooters is a an unusual one, and it’s also just gosh-darn funny. Annie is one of the best female characters in musicals; she knows who she is, she knows what she wants, and she knows what she will and won’t compromise to get it.
Hannah Green’s performance as Annie is just fantastic—the right amount of swagger and humility, her voice strongly embodying the part that was originally written specifically for powerhouse Ethel Merman, and yet trilling into sweetness and tenderness with more tender numbers. Her body language is wonderfully at odds with the women around her. Her legs are more broadly planted than the “parasol ladies” who represent the kind of wife that Frank Butler claims he wants, and her hips are cocked in contrast to the mincing steps of the dainty flowers.
Dustin Davis’ Frank Butler is a man of confidence, or swollen headed egotism, depending on your perspective. Davis’ strong voice and characterization are an even match for Green’s Oakley—or a nearly even match, partially shown up in the show’s famous 11 o’clock number “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better.”
Annie’s ragtag band of little siblings (Lilly Vogts, Nina Torkelson, and Santiago Perez) add sweetness to the show and allow Annie to show a more tender side, as she sings them “Moonshine Lullaby.” Torkelson’s fiddle playin’ during the number “I Got the Sun in the Morning” was both appropriate for the scene, and a great chance for this 5th grader to show off her violin chops. The rest of the ensemble is fantastic, and includes an adorable dog!
The set is minimal. The nine-piece orchestra sit directly on the stage, dressed in cowboy regalia to match the tone of the show. The orchestra is well suited to the music, accompanying but never overpowering. A wooden three tiered bleacher sits on the stage as well, providing a space for various roustabouts and other show-biz folk to sit and add visual interest. The middle floor of the stage featured a huge bullseye; expertly lit. Set pieces flew in and out—fancy velvet curtains for a ritzy hotel; saloon style doors for a more run-down hotel when we begin the show in Cincinnati, where we first meet Annie. These doors suffered an unfortunate malfunction on opening night, when one of them just fell off, but it was handled with nonchalance and the show, of course, went on.
In contrast to Frank and Annie’s fiery, agitated coupling, we see Lindsay Raasch as Winnie Tate and Sage Spiker as Tommy Keeler, two young ‘uns obviously in love, in spite of the objections of Winnie’s sister Dolly (Mary Denmead). Raasch and Spiker have an easy chemistry and play well off each other. Dolly is a complicated character; racist and overbearing, but in heart, just really looking for love as a single woman over 30 in the late 1800s.
Christian Drollinger’s Charlie Davenport, the show promoter, was a funny and charming, and Gary Benser fit the character perfectly as born showman Buffalo Bill, the man who put Annie Oakley on the traveling show circuit.
Annie Get Your Gun was originally performed in 1946, and it must be acknowledged that it has a race problem. City Circle is using Peter Stone’s revision, which removed some of the more offensive songs, such as Annie’s song “I’m an Indian Too” after Chief Sitting Bull “adopts” her. Derek Johnson plays Sitting Bull with dignity, never becoming a caricature—but it’s still jarring to see him in full headdress. We wouldn’t put someone in blackface in 2017, so it feels wrong to have someone in what was essentially the Native American equivalent – full headdress and buckskin – although I don’t know what the answer is to this problem of representation. Sitting Bull really did consider Annie Oakley his adopted daughter, and he really is an integral part of the show. What was not as necessary were the various ensemble members wearing one feather tucked into a headband, like a Disney version of an Indian Princess. And the choice to have Spiker’s Tommy Keeler wear just a few feathers hanging from his head was confusing—from my perspective in row L, I couldn’t at first tell what that was.
The show did drag in a few places, including, I’m sorry to say, the beginning—the overture seemed overly long, and when finally Davis’ Frank Butler appeared, he began crooning “There’s No Business Like Show Business” slowly and carefully. I know this is meant as an adagio beginning to an allegro tune, but it felt too drawn out and plodding before we got into the meat of what is arguably the show’s best known song. There were also a few dance numbers that stalled out the pacing.
Irving Berlin has a wonderful way with words, with clever and engaging rhymes, and he doesn’t use the trope of overlapping vocals except in the case of the song “Old Fashioned Wedding,” in which we’ve already heard Frank’s side of things (“We’ll have an old fashioned wedding/Done in the good old fashioned way….”) countered by Annie’s (“I want a wedding in a big church, with bridesmaids, and flower girls!”) Annie’s “I Want” song, “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun,” clearly delineates what she’s good at and what she isn’t—after all, “You can’t shoot a male in the tail like a quail.”
Annie Oakley and Frank Butler were a couple for the ages. When she died of pernicious anemia in 1926, he decided he couldn’t live without her—he stopped eating and died two weeks later of what was medically starvation, but was actually a broken heart. Enjoy the dramatization of their wildfire romance with humor, with heart, with great music and acting at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts. (Annie Get Your Gun continues at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts. Shows are Friday and Saturday, May 5 and 6, at 7:30pm, and Sunday, May 7, at 2pm. Tickets are available at coralvillearts.org.)