By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
For those who truly love classic Broadway theatre, there are few shows that pack as much firepower as Irving Berlin’s “Annie Get Your Gun.” It was a tour de force for Ethel Merman, perhaps the greatest belter known on the Great White Way, and has since provided vehicles for the likes of Bernadette Peters, Reba McEntire and Patti LuPone.
With crowd pleasers such as “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Anything You Can Do,” “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun” and “Doin’ What Comes Naturally,” there’s little doubt that the show can entertain on a massive level. Its original book by siblings Herbert and Dorothy Fields and in particular two Berlin songs (“I’m an Indian Too” and “Colonel Sitting Bull”) were, at the very least, insensitive and, at their worst, offensive to Native Americans.
The script problems were tackled with a diplomatic new book by Peter Stone (“1776”), who moved songs around and re-imagined the work as a show within a show for the 1999 Broadway revival. This script has done away with the worst of the offending passages and kept or reinforced the plot and subplots in a way that is both satisfying and politically correct.
This production marks the first time Summer Lyric Theatre (SLT) at Tulane University under artistic director Michael McKelvey has opted to present the revised book. It was picked specifically picked as the first of this summer’s three offerings to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the company, whose first show in 1968 was also “Annie Get Your Gun.”
This is the finest production – should we say highest caliber? – of “Annie Get Your Gun” that SLT has ever presented. It sparkles. It shines. And the singing is pure heaven.
Veteran Katie Howe returns to the SLT stage as Annie Oakley and she absolutely claims the part as her own. “They Say It’s Wonderful” was never better sung on the Dixon Hall stage and that includes the rendition turned in by the legendary Cynthia Owen, whose version was nothing short of spectacular.
And it is wonderful because of the direction and choreography of Diane Lala, who has overseen so many past Summer Lyric productions of the past. Ensemble pieces like “I Got the Sun in the Morning” feel fresh under her more than capable hands and certainly not like a 72-year-old tiresome and mothballed work.
Howe employs a full-tilt hillbilly accent early on while performing with the kids in the company playing her siblings and adds it again in “Moonshine Lullaby” with an added cowboy trio. But, as she becomes more feminine in appearance and more attractive, the accent is subdued as her voice soars in concert with Berlin’s classic songs.
Howe’s Annie Oakley has a gifted partner with Jason Dowies, who turns in a magnificent performance as the swell-headed marksman Frank Butler. Their duet of “Anything You Can Do” is charming and effective in bringing the second act together. Again, Stone’s revision helps move the plot along quite well.
Leslie Claverie also continues to prove she is one of the most talented singing actresses in New Orleans. The recent repeat Big Easy Award winner for Best Actress in a Musical is a powerhouse as Dolly Tate, a rival with Annie for Butler’s affections. Were Berlin still alive, he might have been inspired to write an entire song for Claverie as Dolly. She possesses a beautiful instrument, which we hear on certain occasions and she also makes the most of a character that is paper thin and lacking much motivation.
But, like the famous song “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” Claverie, Randy Cheramie as Buffalo Bill and Ken Goode as Charlie Davenport all rise to the occasion with great performances.
As conductor and music director, C. Leonard Raybon continues to imbue the orchestra with amazing direction and perfect timing with the performers. It is a joy to hear the glorious strains of live music performed by a pit orchestra that is not always found with other local productions. By its nature, a musical requires great, spontaneous music and there is no replacement for live musicianship as opposed to that of the taped or canned variety.
The costume designs by Christopher Arthur are superlative, colorful and an enhancement to the movement of the dancers and singers on the SLT stage. Rick Paul’s sets and Daniel Zimmer’s lighting designs are up to their extremely high standards too. Also, the wig and makeup design by Serret Jensen is worthy of accolades.
“Annie Gets Your Gun” continues its run at Summer Lyric at Tulane University with performances nightly at 8:00 tonight and Saturday. Matinees will be seen at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.