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Bernadette Peters is nothing if not game. Put her in an unflattering costume, and she’ll wear it with the flair of a duchess. Give her a star entrance that actually dampens applause, and she’ll smile and say her first line like the trooper she is. Force her to drawl so aggressively that her speeches are nearly unintelligible, and she’ll morph gracefully into Eliza Doolittle by Scene 3. The woman’s a theatrical godsend. Anything you can dream up, she can make better.
The question, obviously, is why she should have to. The answer?…Well, that’s not quite so obvious.
As if refitting star vehicles to new stars weren’t already tricky, the creators of the re-conceived, politically corrected, musical-within-a-rodeo version of Annie Get Your Gun have set themselves an obstacle course to run as well. In the interests of modernity, they’ve deconstructed and then reconstructed Irving Berlin’s 1946 smash about Annie Oakley and the dashing sharpshooter she falls for while touring in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, adding texture to moments originally conceived as vaudeville and inventing a framing device that places the whole story one step farther away from the theater audience. They’ve also mixed and matched staging devices from a later era’s more integrated musicals, as if the simple comic values of such songs as “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly” and “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun” needed to be justified dramatically.
It’s hard to say whether they thought these changes would add to the fun. Clearly they thought they would improve the show’s chances with audiences who have never seen a real star turn in a musical. And since that includes pretty much everyone who started seeing musicals after 1966, they may have a point.
The problem is that in retooling Annie Get Your Gun for patrons more accustomed to applauding big scenery than big stars, the creative team has turned Annie into just another member of the acting company. She gets a follow spot, flashier costumes, and more lines, but rather than lighting up the evening with her brightly shining presence, she’s in there emoting with everybody else. Which is all very egalitarian, but not really conducive to the sort of stargazing the show was designed to accommodate.
Her first song is an instructive example: “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly” is a patter number that tosses bumpkin jokes at the audience and allows Annie to laugh at her own naiveté before anyone else can. Generally played straight out front, because the jests need to register, the song is the star’s first chance to shinea presentational number in the most basic sense. But Graciela Daniele’s staging keeps trying to find bits of business that will integrate it into the fabric of the show. By the last few choruses, she has Peters dancing in little circles with Annie’s pre-adolescent siblings, singing the mildly racy lyrics not to the audience, but to the kids, quite as if they were all performing a third chorus of “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music. The words get lost, the jokes dry up, and the star is presented as being good with children;an aspect of her character that will matter not one whit for the rest of the evening.
To some extent, the creative team is trying to fix something that’s not really broken. Annie Get Your Gun may have arrived on Broadway after Oklahoma! made fashionable the interweaving of music and plot, but even in its first incarnation (with Ethel Merman being lauded by critics for being able to “develop a consistent characterization and stay with it to the show’s end”) the show was a throwback to the vaudeville-style musicals its producers;Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II;were so determined to make obsolete. The irony is that a half-century later, it makes sense to worry about how audiences will react to such painstakingly integrated shows as South Pacific and Carousel, where songs extend dialogue in a manner that has come to seem clumsy in an era of through-composed pop operas. But audiences have never had any difficulty appreciating songs that stand up and declare themselves as entertainment, which is what the ones in this “No Business Like Show Business” musical do.
Alas, once the creative team elected to perform minor surgery on Herbert and Dorothy Fields’ script to make the Wild West Show’s “Injuns” something more than walking “How!” jokes, it was evidently hard for them to know where to stop. Peter Stone’s revised libretto tones down the male chauvinism of Annie’s boyfriend, Frank (Tom Wopat, in a nicely modulated, ingratiating performance), and reinstates a secondary love story that most revivals have deemed superfluous, making one of its characters half-Indian;a stroke that instantly overloads the show with “first settler” references. Then, having acknowledged a real world in which political correctness matters, Stone has no real choice but to turn Annie from a gawky cartoon into a multifaceted modern woman.
Peters, who is perhaps the best actress ever to be hailed as a Broadway diva, would seem to be just the person to make this new conception work. But she needs more help than she’s getting at present. Nobody else who’s played Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun has ever been asked to make the character vulnerable, or complicated, or anything other than a pistol-packin’ tomboy. Part of Annie’s charm has always been that she’s a one-dimensional rube.
Now she’s thinking up a storm and consequently looking dumber than ever when making romantic miscalculations, as when she responds to Frank’s plaintive comment that his medals “don’t got no stones on ’em” with the crudely dismissive “I got stones enough for both of us.” Peters finesses what she can, but she’s really at her best when she’s standing alone on stage, belting a ballad with that thrilling voice of hers. “Lost in His Arms” and “They Say It’s Wonderful” are simple, straightforward triumphs.
Wopat’s solos are strong, too, and when the two stars have been playing together longer, they’re likely to be just fine in such sure-fire, but currently lackluster, comic duets as “An Old Fashioned Wedding” and “Anything You Can Do.”
Design details also need some tweaking. Costumer William Ivey Long was apparently out of the room when lines referring to Annie’s low-cut bodice were written; the gown he’s designed for her big reunion scene with Frank completely covers her breasts. That’s easily fixed. And presumably, Tony Walton’s all-purpose, one-ring-big-top setting, with its onstage band and turntable placed way too far upstage, will fit more comfortably into its New York home. At the Opera House, the unoccupied orchestra pit yawns, moatlike, between actors and audience.
As of last week, the supporting cast seemed more enthusiastic than well-drilled, but then, Daniele’s staging was still a work-in-progress, with airily sloppy choreographic gestures;actors pirouetting in the background during quiet moments, then cranking winches to move scenery when the action heats up;that may well coalesce into a sweetly modern evocation of vaudeville’s heyday. A perfunctory curtain call on opening night testified to general exhaustion;and to the herculean labors being expended on an evening that clearly aims to be light on its feet and effortlessly entertaining. Such is the business like which there’s no business.
Given that medieval monks came up with the animal stories Le Neon is presenting in its ambitious kiddie show Renard the Fox, it’s a relief to be able to report an almost complete absence of sermonizing in the evening.
Renard’s foxiness gets him in hot water, sure. But he always manages to leap out before being scalded, leaving the suffering to his more principled, less crafty barnyard brethren;the rooster whose flock is eaten, the wolf who gets cuckolded, the dog whose foot is maimed in a trap. Moral lessons be damned. Renard dines, screws, slinks away, and lives to do it all again tomorrow.
With 11 actors growling, clucking, and generally making the most of Justine Scherer’s winningly anthropomorphic costumes, you’d think these shenanigans would be enough, but despite a diverting start, the creators basically settle for having a design triumph. Some details are clever: For a wildcat’s gloves, Scherer uses thick fur except for the last two digits of the fingers, which suggest sharp claws by being white and slender. But except for a persuasively henlike performance by Rupa Vickers, the playing isn’t impressive enough to sustain interest once each animal has made its initial appearance.
By the time the critters are pleading with their lion leader to try Renard for high crimes and misdemeanors and run him out of the animal kingdom, patrons who don’t have either a high threshold for animal pageantry or a 6-year-old in tow are going to find the barnyard whimsy considerably less engaging than the performers do. Even at a comparatively brief 80 minutes, the evening feels too long by at least half.CP