Since 1946 when it first opened on Broadway, Annie Get Your Gun has gone through so many revisions – altering details, changing characters, even cutting songs – to the point where today it’s hard to determine what version theatre purists consider to be the definitive presentation of this tuneful Irving Berlin musical. In 1999, a new Broadway revival by the late writer Peter Stone was developed and it’s this one that The Palms Theatre on Brown Road in Mesa is presenting, and what a colorfully rousing, foot-stomping, well-cast production it is, all the more remarkable considering the glaring missteps the theatre’s previous production took.
Watching Palms’ new production is like seeing a theatre company that stepped back, took stock of its abilities and decided to approach the year with a new beginning, determined to show the valley what it can really do with its available pool of local talent, and it’s delivered a winner.
The revival – which itself was altered somewhat once it left Broadway and went back on the road – is here presented as a show-within-a-show. Like the recent revival of Pippin where the revamped production presented its story as played by traveling performers under a Cirque Du Soliel type canvas, Annie Get Your Gun does something similar, only the AGYG revival did it first.
Under a traditionally red and white striped big-top circus tent, the players have come to town to present the fictionalized account of real-life sharp-shooter Annie Oakley, played out by the circus performers who all assume their assigned roles in their traveling, theatrical show. Painted tent strips frame the stage as a decorative reminder that what we’re watching is all being played out under canvas; it really is a show-within-a-show.
The revised production is somewhat politically correct. Gone are the musical references deemed inappropriate and insensitive to Native-Americans, including the jaunty I’m An Indian Too and Buffalo Bill’s opening song, plus the whole subplot cut from previous revisions regarding the cross-cultural romance between Winnie (Melissa Mitchell) and her part Native-American boyfriend, Tommy (Nicholas Gallardo) is here reinstated. There’s also a blow for what was considered a 1946 bow to male superiority with the climactic shoot out between Annie (Aimee Blau-Little) and Frank Butler (Rob Watson). In the revised edition the outcome is the same but the way it gets there is different. Equality of the sexes, even in gun play, is the order of the day.
The real Annie Oakley is said to have been surprisingly quiet and practiced needlepoint in her down time instead of rifle-shooting, but the show presents her as we’ve come to believe the character to be; rowdy, unruly and animated, which is exactly what the enjoyably engaging and hugely likeable Aimee Blau-Little brings to the role, while adding her own sense of winning, down-home humor and innocence to the character. Rob Watson also brings his individual, commanding style to the fore as Annie’s rival and love interest, Frank Butler, possessing not only a strong voice but also a surprising though appropriate sense of vulnerability. When Frank’s inflated ego is punctured due to Annie’s success with the public, you actually feel sorry for him.
But despite solid turns from the show’s two leads, plus good support from an able and lively supporting cast, it’s David Simmons as Buffalo Bill who pulls the production together. With a strong sense of authority, a commanding presence, plus a keen sense of humor delivered with good, comic timing, David draws your focus every time he enters. By sheer size alone, not to mention his wild west, colorfully theatrical appearance, he attracts your attention by default, but it’s his talent that keeps you there.
Production values under director JR Stuart’s guidance are high; Lauren Stanis’ hoe-down choreography is fun, lively and sharply executed by the cast, while Stephen Schermitzler’s music direction is a good support to the show’s wonderfully tuneful Irving Berlin songs without overpowering the voices. Michael Haslenger’s light design alters its look with every song, which at first seemed odd – did every number need mood altering lighting within a scene, you might ask – but when you consider the structure of the musical is supposed to represent a big-top, circus environment and not a traditional musical played out on a Broadway stage, spotlights and other atmospheric changing lights during songs work fine. It even adds a variety show element that would be absent in a regular Broadway musical, but one that a glitzy, big-top circus would present
It’s only when scenes are played out on a section of the apron based extreme stage right where the spell is broken. By moving the cast to an area that is supposed to be backstage, away from under the tent, the idea of everything being a show-within-a-show is damaged. After all, if what we’re seeing is intended to be traveling performers portraying characters in a story played out under a big-top, moving the action to a place not framed by a circus tent, and one that the audience wouldn’t ordinarily be able to see, punctures the illusion.
But it’s a minor quibble considering how much fun the rest of the show has turned out to be. After a shaky close to 2014, The Palms Theatre has approached 2015 by successfully rising to the challenge of competing with the rest of the valley’s substantial professional theatrical community. See Annie Get Your Gun. You should be impressed.
For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for The Palms Theatre website.