DCT: "Annie Get Your Gun" Off Target

It is always great to see the community supporting its very own theatre company.  I have yet to see the theatre at CCBC – Dundalk less than full as the entire neighborhood, it seems, turns out for Dundalk Community Theatre's latest offering.  In this case the near sell-out was for the opening of Annie Get Your Gun, the Irving Berlin classic, which continues through this weekend.  And as usual, DCT has delivered better than average community theatre, though this production comes perilously close to bad stereotypes on a few fronts.  The result is not the sharp hitting bull's-eye one hopes for, but a still entertaining night out at the local theatre.

By far, this production's biggest asset is its titular leading lady, the endlessly talented Lauren Spencer-Harris as Annie Oakley.  (She was ROBBED of a Helen Hayes Award nod for her turn as Thoroughly Modern Millie!)  Ms. Spencer-Harris wears this role like a buckskin glove, and imbues it with an infectious energy from curtain to curtain.  What is particularly great about her interpretation is that she is terrific as "feisty Annie", "sure of herself Annie," and "hopelessly in love Annie."  Her thick accent is endearing and 100% understandable, and her singing voice, always in character, is a strong, lusty belt, and still clear and sweet to the ears.  In short, this little ball of fire is both the hyper tomboy and lively femme fatale that the role requires and then some.  She is particularly winning in the potential tongue twister "Doin' What Comers Naturally" and offers a genuinely sweet rendition of "Moonshine Lullaby."  It is a testament to the strength of her performance that in spite of what is going on around her, she is powerfully good in "I Got the Sun in the Morning" and "Old Fashioned Wedding."  In fact, there are many times where her strength gets us through much of this otherwise mediocre production.

There are three areas where this Annie Get Your Gun falls flat:  the direction, the choreography and the leading man.  Under John Desmone's uninspired direction, this cast of thousands looks shockingly underused and bored.  Take, for example, the long first scene on the street outside a hotel in Ohio.  Do the townsfolk walk by in couples, talking, doing business or anything else townsfolk do? No.  But they do arrive and disperse in two exactly even packs like lemmings to a cliff.  They "ooh" as one; they "aah" as one.  The rest of the time they fake talk to each other and point, or even worse, look out at the audience self-consciously.  They don't appear to be looking for family; they do look rather uncomfortable, like kids dressed up in new, uncomfortable clothes.  (To be fair, the sets and costumes rented from A.T. Jones are nice to look at, but honestly, even 1800's plaids get dull after awhile.)  And in another scene, the ensemble looks both embarrassed and terrified in the decidedly un-P.C. "I'm an Indian, Too" number which lists the stereotypical advantages of being a "redskin."

I suspect, though, that the embarrassed terror has less to do with insulting Native Americans than it has to do with the choreography.  Jennifer Pheil Otero is listed as the production's choreographer, but the dance numbers don't look like dancing.  Apparently, she learned little from performing at Walt Disney World or on local stages (her bio lists this and several productions to her credit).  Even choreography "dumbed down" for dance-challenged locals doesn't have to be dull.  And quite frankly, assigning the box step and a few kicks seriously underestimates the minimum abilities of people.  I am pretty sure the ensemble could have handled a little more.  And I know for certain that Ms. Spencer-Harris could do much more.  I only cringed, but the audience actually tittered at the big number in Act Two – "I've Got the Sun in the Morning."  Couldn't the ensemble do more than lift an arm at "I've got the sun in the morning" and then lift the other at "and the moon at night"?  Once, twice, maybe.  But that line and the motions are repeated dozens of times!  It reminds me of productions of Fiddler on the Roof where the lights go up on "Sunrise" and dim on "Sunset" over and over.  Any teacher will tell you that nine times out of ten, if you demand higher standards your students will rise to the occasion.

The role of Frank Butler, man's man, ladies' man and all-around he man, requires not only someone who can sing well, but also absolutely oozes charm and charisma.  Michael Quinn can certainly sing, and he's handsome in a stiff, Ken doll sort of way, but he has no oomph.  Why oh why would spitfire Annie Oakley fall instantly for this guy?  She wouldn't.  His opening number, "I'm a Bad, Bad Man" is nearly laughable as it unconsciously points out his shortcomings – there is nothing remotely dangerous, daring or even interesting about his delivery.  If he didn't actually have lines that SAY he loves Annie, you'd never know he does.  Perhaps because she is so damned good, he does actually improve when he goes head to head with Ms. Spencer-Harris in "Old Fashioned Wedding" and the classic "Anything You Can Do".  The latter song closes the show (aside from the 500th reprise of "There's No Business Like Show Business"), but by then it is too little much too late for liking Frank Butler.

Ms. Spencer-Harris does have a few supporting cast members that take some of the pressure off making this a one-woman show.  Kate Briante as the mischievous nemesis Dolly is having fun with her part and sings beautifully.  It's too bad she often gets swallowed up by the ensemble blob.  Saul Clark-Braverman is a hoot in his small hotel owner role, and Roger Schulman practically steals the show as Sitting Bull.  He somehow manages to get laughs without making a mockery of this historical figure.  The foursome of Annie's kids is great (Austin Hooper, Julia Unitas, Kelsey Lake and Lauren Rohrs).  They make unique characters and support their "mother" well.  And the quartet of Rick Arnold, Ray Lawson, Buzz Merrick and Greg Dohmeier who sing in "Moonshine Lullaby" and "My Defenses Are Down" are just amazing.

It is the use of these four talented chaps to such good effect that goes to show that director and choreographer have what it takes to make an interesting production.  It makes it all the more maddening, then, when you get a quick glimpse of excellence in nearly 3 hours of dullness.  And it speaks volumes when the hometown crowd does not give a standing ovation.  Still, the wondrous star turn by the leading lady, and some truly beautiful vocalizing (directed by Glenette Rohner Schumacher), and a talented orchestra (directed by Sally Tarr) playing a first-rate score by one of America's greatest composers make this Annie Get Your Gun worth attending.  If you close your eyes, it sounds like a Broadway show.

PHOTOS: TOP to BOTTOM: Mike Quinn and Lauren Spencer-Harris; Kate Briante, Wayne Ivusich and Lauren Spencer-Harris; and Julia Unitas, Lauren Rohrs, Lauren Spencer-Harris, Kelsey Lake and Austin Hooper.  MAIN PAGE: Wayne Ivusich, Tom Kowalski, Lauren Spencer-Harris and Mike Quinn.  Photos by Tom Lauer.

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