Theatre companies do Broadway musicals all the time, but few productions ever seem to measure up to the originals. The one reliable exception is the little Goodspeed Opera House, hidden away in East Haddam, Connecticut, just southeast of Hartford. This is one company that almost always hits a bullseye.
Since Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun opened this past weekend, we had to revisit this musical tale about Annie Oakley (1860-1926), who was a sharpshooter from Ohio, and her husband, Frank Butler.
The verdict? The audience rewarded it with wildly enthusiastic applause, and so did I. It's fresh, funny and fabulous. The love they lavished on this musical is right up there on stage to hear and see. There's an energetic cast of two dozen singers and dancers who put their hearts into the show. The choreography by Noah Racey was dazzling. The work of the hard working performers was enhanced by the sparkling sound, with eight top notch musicians in the orchestra pit.
This edition of Annie Get Your Gun is not the same as the original, however. Cuts - most significantly of "I'm An Indian Too" - and updates were made to both book and song to bring it into the 21st Century, and to avoid some of the earlier racist cliches that were common in the mid 1940's.
From the opening notes of "There's No Business Like Show Business" to the rip roaring final duet of "Anything You Can Do" the two lead actors, Jenn Gambatese as Annie Oakley and Kevin Earley as Frank Butler filled the hall with glorious singing and acting that made the old fashioned book almost believable. Despite all its puns the audience loved every line, got every joke. I had a grin that went from ear to ear for most of the show. So much so that my jaw is sore today.
Success of course has many mothers. Nevertheless, a big portion of the credit has to go the incredibly clever director, Rob Ruggiero who used every inch of stage space available. His cast swarmed and swirled under the big top, through the crowned heads of Europe and into a high society gathering. One dance took place on the top of a railroad car which rolled on and off stage with ease.
David McDonald made Buffalo Bill Cody a gentleman ringmaster in this role. Equally impressive were Bill Nabel as Pawnee Bill and Rebecca Watson as Dolly Tate. Impeccable timing in delivering his lines was Chief Sitting Bull played by the delightful Michael Nichols.
Orville Mendoza - who I first heard at Barrington Stage Company - carried the roles of Running Deer and several others over the course of the evening.
Rounding out the major figures are the two lovers Winnie Tate (Chelsea Morgan Stock and Tommy Keeler (Andrew Cao). Their voices were sweet, if not terribly loud.
As usual, the Goodspeed's production was world class, even with the limited playing space this jewel box of a theatre has to work with. Michael Schweikardt's set was highly creative, billowing posters and curtains doing the work of dividing the locations and scenes with speed and decisiveness. The costumes by Alejo Vietti were just amazing to see, detailed right down to the dirt and grime on Annie's leather and rough hewn clothes.
Anyone who is looking for a top notch musical - of the old fashioned variety - should find their way to East Haddam and see this superb company for themselves. You will quickly discover why Goodspeed is the home of Broadway hits - they have sent more musicals to Broadway than any other regional theatre company.
Annie Get Your Gun. Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. Original Book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields. Revised by Peter Stone. First performance April 16, 2010. Recently extended to play to July 3. Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, Connecticut. About 2 hours, 15 minutes with one intermission. http://www.goodspeed.org/