BWW Review: Run Away With the Circus at Fulton's ANNIE GET YOUR GUN
The true story of legendary sharpshooter Annie Oakley is a lovely one. She won a shooting contest against marksman Frank Butler, married him, and they joined Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show together. They lived happily ever after, and died less than a year apart. Lovely, yes, but not altogether the stuff of musical comedy, so Herbert and Dorothy Fields took a few liberties with the history when they did the book for Irving Berlin's ANNIE GET YOUR GUN. All right, they took more than a few, but the whole point of the show is the songs. ANNIE GET YOUR GUN is an Irving Berlin lovefest that should keep fans not only of musical theatre but of the Great American Songbook happy for ages to come.
Directed and choreographed by Marc Robin, the show is on stage at the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster, where a full scale circus atmosphere has been arranged for audiences. Not only does it borrow from the Lincoln Center production that used a circus big top staging (though it's likely to recall the Diane Paulus PIPPIN as well nowadays), but the theatre has added to the experience with a midway in its lobby. Buy popcorn or hot dogs, and possibly try your strength - can you hit the bell? The setup is sure to add audience interest but it's not really necessary for audience members to see the midway to love the show.
The production's Annie is Chicago theatre veteran Heidi Kettenring, who can sing, and can sing loud and long, and while no one can lay claim to be Ethel Merman, Kettenring can give anyone a run for the money. She's responsible for the best moments of the show - "You Can't Get a Man With a Gun," "I Got the Sun in the Morning," and Berlin's underappreciated, beautiful "Moonshine Lullaby." She's also half of the joy of one of the show's two classic songs, "Anything You Can Do." The other half of that formula is Curt Dale Clark as Frank Butler. Butler's a stuffed-up popinjay with great aim, an even greater ego, and an inability to cede anything at all to a female. Clark clearly has great fun with the part while keeping it from going over the top, but yet better are Clark's baritone and his comedy, which make "Anything You Can Do" such a delightful number in partnership with Kettenring.
But while the battle of the sexes is a running theme of the show, one of the great things in the story is that it totally upends the entire concept. Everyone knows that no man wants a woman who's better at everything than he is, right? Right? Oh, right. Maybe. Watching Kettenring's Annie trying to be true to her talent while trying to land Frank, and watching Clark's Butler get a clue (more than once, come to think of it) that he needs to admit he adores Annie's talent as well as her, is worth well more than the price of admission.
Kathy Voytko is a joy as Dolly Tate, Frank's assistant who's desperate to get married - preferably to Frank, but she's not too sure she can be choosy - and to foil Annie's plans. Equally enjoyable is Richard Costa as Buffalo Bill Cody. Although there's not a lot that can be done to rehabilitate the painful stereotyping of the character, Tony Lawson makes a highly entertaining Chief Sitting Bull, Annie's adoptive father and investor in Buffalo Bill's show.
However, this is a show with a large cast and ensemble, and Robin does do full justice to the ensemble numbers of the show, both in the classic "There's No Business Like Show Business" and in "I Got the Sun in the Morning." With the circus theme, however, there's also full use of circus acrobatics in the show, from a pre-opening cowboy acrobatics act, to Frank's entrance at opening on a trapeze, to tightrope walking in a reprise of "There's No Business Like Show Business." After the success of the circus themed PIPPIN revival it's hard not to think of that while watching the acrobatics and stunts, but here the circus acts are not constantly running throughout the show; again, it's a nod to the Lincoln Center production of this show. The circus choreography is by 2 Ring Circus, who previously worked with the Fulton on its recent production of THE WIZARD OF OZ.
This is a big, loud, boisterous production of a big, loud, boisterous show, full of good humor and, wisely, not at all able to take itself too seriously. If ever a musical were a continuous vaudeville show, it's this one, and to play it any other way is to cheat the audience. May no director ever wake up with the idea of making it in any way modern; part of the show's delight is its period setting and another part its equally period - of a later date - Irving Berlin music. This is Berlin's great musical (it was originally planned to be a Jerome Kern musical, but fate intervened, and who could imagine it as a Kern musical now?), with perhaps the largest number of popular songs ever to come from one show.
Although he worked with Bob Fosse, Marc Robin's musical comedy production and choreography style suggest that his inner self is longing to be the next Busby Berkeley. If so, it's a noble goal, and one that, over the past few seasons, he's nearly approached. Here, there's no doubt that the concept goes with the music, as does his on-stage circus with the show's book, and the result is delicious.
On stage at the Fulton through February 19. Coming up in March, IN THE HEIGHTS, a very definite switch from ANNIE GET YOUR GUN. Tickets and information for both at thefulton.org.