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Seattle by Jonathan Frank


Annie Get Your Gun and
Anything Goes

Two classic war-horses representing Broadway's Golden Age have galloped into Seattle: Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun at The Paramount Theatre and Cole Porter's Anything Goes at The Fifth Avenue Theatre. Both shows were written when it wasn't a crime to have light, fluffy shows on the Great White Way, and it was allowable, nay encouraged, to check one's brain at the door. Interestingly enough, both shows share more than original star Ethel Merman: not only do they both contain catchy, well-known tunes and a standard love story as their plots, but they faced similar stumbling blocks on route to their Broadway premiers.

Irving Berlin's greatest show, Annie Get Your Gun, opened at the Imperial Theatre on May 16, 1946. Originally, Berlin was not to have been involved at all. Dorothy Fields was to have written both the book and the lyrics, with the music being contributed by Jerome Kern. Unfortunately, Kern's death threw a spanner in the works, and the job ultimately fell to Irving Berlin, with Dorothy Fields bowing out as lyricist. The show had been conceived specifically for Ethel Merman since Dorothy Fields had felt that casting Merman as Annie Oakley would guarantee a surefire hit. And she was right: the New York production of Annie Get Your Gun ran for 1,147 performances and was the third longest running musical of the 1940s. It was the biggest Broadway hit of Merman's career and in 1966 she returned to the role for a revival at Lincoln Center.

The story tells the highly fictionalized account of real life sharpshooter Annie Oakley. Persuaded to join Buffalo Bill's travelling Wild West Show, she falls hopelessly in love with Frank Butler, the show's featured shooting star. Conflicts ensue when she overtakes Frank as the lead attraction and egos start to be bruised.

The show was revived in 1999 with a heavily revised book by Peter Stone who cleaned up the un-PC elements of the show and turned it into a 'show-within-a-show.' The changes were not necessarily for the better and did nothing to improve the admittedly creaky and out-dated book. While some of the lines and situations were decidedly sexist and racist when looked at through modern sensibilities, the show has been rendered so squeaky-clean that it approaches sanitized plastic. Setting the show within the confines of Buffalo Bill's travelling Wild West Show, ala The Will Rogers Follies, is its greatest mistake as the conceit adds nothing to the story and only serves to disrupt the rhythm and build of the scenes, as well as nip applause in the bud.

Marilu Henner in Annie Get Your Gun
Marilu Henner in Annie Get Your Gun
When I saw the show in New York last year, I found it to be enjoyable largely due to its star, Bernadette Peters. However, while she sounded great, especially in the classic ballad "Lost in His Arms," I did not find her to be particularly believable in the part and thought she overbalanced the show, especially in regards to her scenes with her leading man, Tom Wopat. Therefore, I was curious to see how the show would work on tour minus its original leading lady, who has been replaced by Marilu Henner, but with Tom Wopat reprising his role (recently taking over for Rex Smith).

Interestingly enough, the show actually works much better and I am sure that I am going to be struck down by lightning (or irate fans) by stating that Marilu is better cast as the titular sharpshooter than Bernadette was. While her voice is not at Bernadette's level (but then again, whose is?) she is much more believable and inhabits the character rather than playing a personality. As a result, there is actual chemistry between Henner and Tom Wopat (who sounds incredible and makes me wish they had kept "I'm a Bad, Bad Man" in the show so he could get another number.) Both the leads and the exceptionally strong supporting cast genuinely seem to be having a great time, which makes the show infectious fun, and helps to gloss over the flaws of the production: namely the insipid choreography, uneven direction and questionable revisions to the book.

Down the street at The Fifth Avenue Theatre, Cole Porter's classic Anything Goes has taken residence. Considered to be the quintessential 30s musical, Anything Goes contains a plethora of songs which have become standards: "I Get a Kick Out of You," "You're the Top," (the biggest hit, and deliberately placed five minutes into the show to get even with his late-arriving society friends), "All Through the Night," "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" and of course, "Anything Goes." Interestingly enough, there is no complete copy of the original 1934 version, so subsequent revivals have taken liberties, incorporating various songs from the Porter estate and rewriting the book.

The Cast of Anything Goes
The Cast of Anything Goes

Anything Goes was originally conceived by producer Vinton Freedley whose idea was to base the show on an ocean liner facing the threat of a possible shipwreck. He returned to New York and assembled his dream team: Cole Porter, Guy Bolton, P.G. Wodehouse, and Ethel Merman. Unfortunately, with rehearsals just about to begin, the S.S. Morro Castle went down off the coast of New Jersey, causing the deaths of more than 125 passengers. As a musical about a shipwreck might have been construed as being in poor taste after that disaster, it was decided that a new book needed to be written. With Bolton and Wodehouse out of the country, the chore fell to director, Howard Lindsey, who collaborated with Russel Crouse. These two would go on to write such classic shows as Red, Hot and Blue, Call Me Madam, The Sound of Music and Life with Father.

Anything Goes opened at The Alvin Theatre on November 21, 1934 and turned out to be the fourth longest running musical of the 30s. In 1987, it was revived at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre with Patti LuPone in the leading role and a revised book by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman.

The production at The Fifth Avenue is based on the 1962 Off-Broadway revival, which is felt to be the closest to the original, and it provides an evening of frothy, mindless pleasure. And what is there not to like? The songs are classics. The set by Michael Anania is absolutely incredible and captures the elegance and grandeur of a classic ocean liner. The costumes by Patrick Stovall range from glamour to camp as required.

Dee Hoty in Anything Goes
Dee Hoty
And the cast? Delightful! Delicious! And led by the de-lovely Dee Hoty, who plays the evangelist turned lounge singer, Reno Sweeney (for an interview with Dee, click here). Looking and sounding fantastic, Dee perfectly interprets the sexual double entendres and the sophisticated comedic wordplay of Cole Porter. Bronson Pinchot brought his ever ebullient self to the part of Sir Evelyn Oakleigh, the aristocrat enamored by American slang and Reno Sweeney ... but engaged to Hope Harcourt (sweetly played by Donna English). Michael Gruber proved to be a triple threat with his singing, dancing and comedic timing in the part of Billy Crocker and Colleen Hawks was delightfully ditzy as the gun moll, Bonnie. The local actors were equally strong, especially Allen Galli who's portrayal of 'Public Enemy #13,' Moonface Martin, was a comic highlight.

Both shows provide enjoyable (and usually much needed) breaks from the hustle, bustle and stress of the Holiday Season. Annie Get Your Gun runs through December 10th at The Paramount Theatre. For tickets and more information visit www.theparamount.com. Anything Goes runs through December 17th at The Fifth Avenue Theatre. For tickets, visit www.ticketmaster.com.




- Jonathan Frank



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