Irving Berlin’s score for Annie Get Your Gun is one of only a handful, like Guys and Dolls and The King and I, in which virtually every number is instantly familiar. The show is also indelibly identified with its original star, Ethel Merman. There have been a number of excellent revivals (including a major Lincoln Center production with Merman returning to her signature role) but none have come close to eclipsing the success of the original, until now. Given a sparkling new libretto, and a genuine star performance in the title role, Graciela Daniele’s production seems less like a revival of an old favorite and more like a new show which harks back to the kind of escapist musical that nobody seems to write anymore.
Merman’s Annie was one of the iconic musical theater performances. In an age before microphones, hers was also, of necessity, always something of a one note interpretation. What "The Merm" may have lacked in acting ability she made up for in lung power and sheer weight of star personality. Several actresses have brought shades of subtlety and warmth to the character which were lacking in the original and there have been a number of fine recordings of the score – two excellent ones which are currently available feature Kim Criswell and Judy Kaye.
Bernadette Peters’ triumph in the new Broadway production lies in her uncanny ability to breathe life into a character who might so easily come off as little more than a cartoon, albeit a delightful one. The audience falls in love with this Annie from her first entrance. Peters offers a character who, while clearly nobody’s fool, also possess a genuine and disarming innocence, combining a warm and gentle nature with the instinct of one of life’s survivors.
Her approach to the musical numbers is equally revelatory. In her hands, Berlin’s score is revealed as infinitely more subtle and varied than it appeared when filtered through Merman’s stentorian delivery. I Got Lost In His Arms, in particular, is breathtakingly lovely and Peters’ duet with Tom Wopat’s Frank Butler on They Say It’s Wonderful is as warm and tender as the touching lyric suggests. Both she and Wopat mine the comic numbers for genuine wit rather than just easy gags. Which is not to say that the production lacks big laughs, just that the relationship between its two central characters comes over as genuinely romantic. The audience really feels that these two people are right for each other and is rooting for them to work out their difficulties from the moment of their first meeting.
Tom Wopat matches his co-star for charm and presence. His singing voice is as relaxed and easy as his acting style. He shines in his solos, especially My Defenses Are Down, one of the many moments where the witty choreography (by Daniele and Jeff Calhoun) comes into its own. There is genuine and infectious chemistry between the two stars; their delight in the score and their characters fills the Marquis’ huge auditorium. If the production has a fault it may be that, in so effectively fleshing out the two leads, it leaves the supporting roles more two dimensional than ever – though Valerie Wright’s deliciously acid and endlessly confounded Dolly Tate is a notable exception.
It would be difficult to recommend the production too highly to anyone in search of the kind of completely uncynical entertainment that musical theater seems less able – or willing – to produce nowadays. The real triumph of this new Annie is to have taken something that was so good to begin with and then to improve on it. The new orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin are fresh and delightful. The book, revised from Herbert and Dorothy Fields’ original by Peter Stone, even manages to solve one of the show’s enduring problems by leaving Annie and Frank on equal terms rather than forcing Annie to compromise her own talents in order to win her true love. Apparently, under the right circumstances, you can get a man with a gun.
– Mark Jennett.