Chicago Theatre Review
Welcome to Berlin
Annie Get Your Gun
Light Opera Works’ holiday production of Irving Berlin’s classic Wild West love story is a glorious treat for the ear. Conductor/Chorus Master Roger L. Bingaman’s competent 28-member orchestra wrings every drop of joy from Berlin’s melodic score in a way that would’ve made the Tin Pan Alley composer proud. Indeed, in this age of economical, tinny-sounding synthesized pit orchestras, LOW’s rich, full-sounding musical accompaniment is always the highlight their productions and provides an auditory feast.
Equal praise goes to the production’s two leading performers, as well. As Annie Oakley, Colette Todd is a master artist, whose solid, bright belt and clean, sincerely expressive soprano mixes well with a sassy spunkiness that’s perfect for this role. Ms. Todd, who has demonstrated her considerable musical and theatrical talents as Aldonza and Nancy in Light Opera Works’ productions of “Man of La Mancha” and “Oliver,” carries the show as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show sharpshooting star. In a role originally written for Ethel Merman, and later played by such Broadway powerhouses as Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone, Ms. Todd makes an impression showcasing both her comic talents and her musical strength in songs like “Doin’ What Comes Naturally,” “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun,” “I Got the Sun in the Morning” and the gorgeous “I Got Lost in His Arms.”
As Frank Butler, Annie’s sharpshooting competition and love interest, James Rank brings a charming smile, a down home charisma and a smooth, strong baritone that has never sounded better. Together this duo make a winning team that can’t be topped. Frank’s songs, which include “I’m a Bad, Bad Man,” “The Girl That I Marry,” “My Defenses are Down,” and duets with Ms. Todd, “Anything You Can Do,” “They Say It’s Wonderful,” and especially “An Old Fashioned Wedding,” are all terrific. Both actors also lend their voices to the popular anthem to all things theatrical, “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
Unfortunately, however, Rudy Hogenmiller’s production isn’t without its flaws. There’s nothing particularly new or exciting about the way his show is staged; and while competent, Mr. Hogenmiller’s choreography doesn’t stand out. His “Indian Ceremonial” and “Tribal Dance,” combined with “I’m an Indian Too,” is much too long and could benefit from some trimming. Moreover, Jenny Lamb, one of Chicago’s most versatile actresses, seems to have been directed to play Dolly Tate, Annie’s antagonist, as a buffoonish caricature. When she’s paired in scenes with James Rank’s Frank Butler, or Jim Heatherly’s very underplayed Charlie Davenport, it’s as if Ms. Lamb is visiting from a different production.
In addition, Hogenmiller has chosen the original version of this musical for this production. Written by Dorothy and Herbert Fields, the script is interesting from an historical perspective but what was funny in the 1940’s is merely insensitive and offensive by today’s standards. Modern-day audiences find neither the stereotyping of Native Americans nor the subservient portrayal of women humorous or entertaining. Rewritten for the 1999 Broadway revival, Peter Stone’s revised script that features a show-within-a-show might’ve been a better choice for Light Opera Works. Stone both tempers the offensive material while streamlining the play; and with Mr. Hogenmiller’s slowly paced production running almost three hours long, enlivened only by its gorgeous music, a shorter evening would be much welcome.
In fact it is Irving Berlin’s timeless score, played by a full, talented pit orchestra, and sung by an excellent cast, that is the reason to see this show. Brenda Winstead’s fine turn-of-the-century costumes and Palmer Jankens’ excellent sound design enhance a production that’s notable primarily as piece of classic theatrical history.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented Dec. 21-31 by Light Opera Works at Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St., Evanston, IL.
Tickets are available by calling 847-920-5360 or by visiting www.LightOperaWorks.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.