A Tale of Two Annies
It was a kind of last minute thing for us to see Annie Get Your Gun. VJ really wanted to see a second show after Chicago since they were only in town one night and there was absolutely nothing on the boards. Peter Pan was starting at 7:30 and we didn't have time to get up there and the word from a friend at Footloose was that there were six understudies in last night and that about it did it for musicals on the TKTS boards. So we went over to the Marquis and asked about the availability for cheaper tix. They had row H in the mezz and after thinking about it, we came back and bought them. I'm a big Bernadette fan and I'll never turn down a chance to see her perform.
The show began as usual with the show stopping "There's No Business Like Show Business" and went on to the show. Bernadette Peters made her entrance and was as alive as ever. After her line to the hotel owner "I'd like to know if I could do some business with you", Miss Peters was listing the various animals she was selling when out of nowhere she stopped speaking, covered her mouth and quietly walked off stage. The other actor was left alone on stage to fend for himself. He began to make some jokes, asking for the other actors to come do some rope tricks. The stage manager came over the loudspeaker and told him to stop and informed the audience that Miss Peters had taken ill and there would be a brief intermission.
The audience didn't know how to react. The voice came back and announced that Miss Peters was feeling well enough to continue. She came back on stage just as before and said, "I was wonderin' if you STILL wanted to do business with me" as the audience cheered for her. She continued with the show, performing "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly" and "You Can't Get a Man With a Gun." However, during the middle of the latter song, she began to go slightly off-key. Being the pro she is, she stopped the blocking and sat down to get herself back on without leaving her character or the song. Somehow she found her place and kept the song going without anyone seeing her struggle to finish. She did manage to get the song out, but VJ and I have both seen the show multiple times and could tell she was not at the form she usually is. She was struggling and just trying to get through it. When the song ended, she walked off stage.
The next scene is the shooting match between Frank Butler and Annie Oakley. At the point when they announce Annie's arrival, the same voice came over the speaker and said, "Miss Peters has taken ill again and for the rest of the performance the role of Annie Oakley will be played by Valerie Wright and the role of Dolly Tate will be played by Michelle Blakely. There will be a short intermission now." The cast was asked to step back and the curtain fell.
Well I have to hand it to Bernadette. For years I've heard about her missing performances, but from what I've heard from the fans who visit my site on her, she's never missed a performance of Annie Get Your Gun. She even gave up her allowed vacation. She was really dedicated to this show and she proved it by going out there feeling sick, giving it her all and trying twice to make it work. Hopefully she'll take a few days off and come back in perfect health and ready to take on the role again. But as I sat there listening to her belt out those songs I had to think, "I wish I could sound one quarter as good when I'm healthy as she does when she's sick!"
Anyway, on to her understudy. Valerie Wright, who played Dolly Tate in the show, understudies Bernadette. She also worked with Miss Peters in Andrew LLoyd Webber's Song and Dance in 1985 and played Lola in the tour of Damn Yankees. We were expecting half the audience to leave with the star, but surprisingly only about 1/4 of the people left for the refund line. The rest decided to see the remainder of the show with its new star.
The intermission lasted about 20 minutes so the two actresses could change costumes and get ready to go on. When the curtain finally rose, they picked up exactly where they left off and Miss Wright came on and began to perform the leading role that just a few minutes ago a Broadway legend was filling.
And she did an amazing job. While so many understudies I've seen just fill the role and copy the star, Miss Wright made it her own. She didn't copy Bernadette. She didn't follow her movements, she didn't repeat her style. She played the role of Annie like it was her own role, creating her own character. While Bernadette's Annie was more of a sweet cartoonish type, Valerie made her more serious and aggressive. She didn't push for laughs and she didn't show any signs of nervousness or loss of her place. She performed that role like she'd been doing it the entire run. It's such a shame that she doesn't have much to sing in her regular role. When she sang "Moonshine Lullaby" it was like hearing an angel sing the children to sleep. It enchanted the entire audience and immediately made all memories of the earlier Annie of the evening just memories.
She got through the performance without making one mistake. She got every laugh, hit every note and even had a success with "Old Fashioned Wedding", which is known for being unblocked. And though she's probably seen Bernadette perform it a million times the same way, she did it her own way and only kept part of Bernadette's act to keep Tom Wopat from becoming too confused. A true professional in every way.
When the show came to an end, we all cheered for her. Everyone gave her a standing ovation. She started the night in one role and suddenly switched to the other and blew us all away in it. Her co-star gave her the entire stage so she could bask in the ovation that rivaled those that some major stars receive. She had saved the show and proved everyone who said it was nothing without its star wrong. Everyone who was there that night can testify that Valerie Wright is a star in her own right.
So if there's ever a night that you're at Annie Get Your Gun and you see that little slip for Bernadette Peters, don't leave. You can see Bernadette almost any night. If you stay, you'll be one of the select few who get to witness the beautiful performance of the talented Valerie Wright. Bravo to both of those two ladies - Bernadette for trying so hard and to Valerie for making a potential disaster a very memorable night in the theatre!
-- Melinda Hesbacher
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