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Chicago by John Olson

Annie Get Your Gun
Ravinia Festival

Lonny Price became the go-to guy for directing staged concerts because so many of his efforts surpassed expectations and satisfied as productions, albeit productions with minimal sets. Though the Annie Get Your Gun he staged for Ravinia the weekend of August 13 was as fully staged as Price's earlier efforts, it was more successful as a concert than musical theater, with both credit and blame for that going to his star. Credit, because Patti LuPone did a pretty sensational job with her character's eight major numbers, showing once again she's the one to keep the roles of the great Ethel Merman alive. Couple LuPone's powerful and pitch-perfect voice (and less of her signature mannerisms than usual) with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Paul Gemignani and you have as nearly perfect a reading of the great Irving Berlin score as one could imagine. Blame, because she didn't fully commit to a character. Her Annie was feisty enough, but seemed to be of no particular age or geography. Ironically, LuPone did a better job of acting the many characters behind the various songs she sang in Ravinia's Sondheim concert of two weeks earlier than she did with her single character of this show.

None of that may matter a whole lot as the musical's book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields is not much of a piece of drama, anyway. It's mainly a thin plot connecting the songs and some dated, lame jokes (Price used the 1966 version, which eliminated the secondary romantic couple and added the new song "An Old Fashioned Wedding"). The production may have been better served had he trimmed the book down to its barest elements and concentrated on the score, which includes by my count no less than eight standards. Highlights were "I Got the Sun in the Morning" and "An Old Fashioned Wedding." Ms. LuPone's partner in that song and co-star for the evening was Patrick Cassidy as Frank Butler. Cassidy had the requisite swagger for the lead role of the womanizing sharpshooter, though he didn't add any surprises in his interpretation of this fairly cardboard character. Vocally, he seemed uncomfortable in the lower end of his range and even a little higher up, but he generally filled the bill.

The stars had fine support from the supporting players. George Hearn made a great looking Buffalo Bill and, together with Cassidy and Michael Weber as Charlie Davenport, gave an all-star reading of "There's No Business Like Show Business." Weber displayed the most impressive acting in the piece as the weasel-like manager of the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, having great fun with his archetypical character. Suzanne Sole was a sultry rival to Annie as Dolly Tate, and Joseph Anthony Foronda did an admirable job of downplaying the American Indian stereotypes inherent in the book by keeping Chief Sitting Bull tough and wise as well as funny.

The fine ensemble and Josh Rhodes' choreography had just one big number, "I Got the Sun in the Morning," but his dances made it a joyous affair. There seemed to be no compromises in the elaborate costumes by Tracy Christensen, ranging from Indian garb and Wild West buckskins through late 19th century formal attire. Set designer Jim Noone used a set of steamer trunks in various configurations to suggest sets around a wooden playing area with a target painted in its center and the orchestra on three sides.

While the lack of much real comic invention from Ms. LuPone in the title role kept this production from fully jelling, the show was nevertheless satisfying as a showcase for her vocals. After her efforts in Ravinia's productions of Sondheim musicals in which she was a team player, sometimes with limited opportunity to sing (Gypsy not withstanding), it was a pleasure to hear her in a star vehicle where she got to do some of Berlin's greatest contributions to the great American songbook.

Annie Get Your Gun was performed at the Ravinia Festival, Highland Park, Illinois, from August 13 through 15, 2010.

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-- John Olson



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