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Bull’s-eye!

by B.A. Nilsson on July 20, 2011

Annie Get Your Gun
Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin, directed by Francesca Zambello, conducted by Kristen Blodgette Glimmerglass Opera, July 18

Newly installed Glimmerglass Opera artistic director Francesca Zambello plans to nestle an American musical theater piece among the operatic offerings every summer, presented in a manner as close as possible to the original production.

This summer, it’s Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun, featuring Wagnerian opera star Deborah Voigt, and it’s a revelatory experience. Not just for putting her and other opera singers into what they used to be trained to think of as enemy territory (although it works better than I hoped), but also for an unamplified journey through a classic Broadway show.

Amplification has been one of the most destructive of trends in theater, killing the immediacy of the experience. Yes, in Glimmerglass’s Annie we had to concentrate to catch all of the dialogue, but that’s a good thing to ask of an audience. And when song lyrics were occasionally hard to follow, I heard it more as a balance problem between orchestra and singers. The latter enunciated fabulously, but had to compete with overly eager percussionists at times.

But you want to know about Voigt (pictured, at left). Less larger-than-life than I anticipated, she fit well in the ensemble, saving her star power for logical moments in the show, especially in the second act, and doing a commendable job of developing a character that, let’s face it, is pretty much made of cardboard. Can it be argued that casting Ethel Merman in that role was less unlikely? I think not.

Judged by its book, the show is creaky, its major conflict a hoary cliché (sharpshooter Frank Butler is so threatened by Annie Oakley’s marksmanship that he’ll throw over the prospect of marriage to her) with a side trip through superannuated American Indian jokes.

These are problems each revival of the piece faces, and to Glimmerglass’s credit, they plowed full speed ahead with it, take it or leave it. We can’t keep apologizing for our insensitive cultural past.

After fretting that he wouldn’t be able to come up with appropriate songs for the piece, Irving Berlin knocked several out of the park. “There’s No Business like Show Business,” of course, along with “The Girl That I Marry,” “They Say It’s Wonderful” and more.

Drew Taylor opens the show as Charlie Davenport, establishing a dynamic stage presence from the start and joining skillfully in ensemble numbers along the way. As his sidekick, Dolly, Klea Blackhurst is similarly effective.

With the arrival of Butler (baritone Rod Gilfry, pictured at right), the tone turned more operatic, although his first number, “I’m a Bad, Bad Man,” is a comic song he delivered with Main Stem gusto and the requisite lovely chorines on his arm. Similarly, Voigt (who looked great in her leather and fringes) started with the peppy “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly,” nicely integrated with the quartet of very talented youngsters who play her siblings.

When Voigt and Gilfry joined in the ballad “The Girl That I Marry,” the power and beauty of their voices showed what made this song so successful in the first place—it’s about the intimacy that excellent singers can create on stage. Which made it all the more appropriate that they could bring the same magic to “They Say It’s Wonderful?”

Nice touches included the close-harmony male trio that joined Voigt in “Moonshine Lullaby,” in a scene that also benefitted from the work of choreographer Eric Sean Fogel. Moving opera singers around the musical theater stage is a challenge, but he met it well in act two’s “I Got the Sun in the Morning,” with strong help from specialty dancers Allan K. Washington and Steven Dean Moore.

“There’s No Business Like Show Business” is, of course, anthemic, and it got a rousing treatment that was reprised, appropriately, in one, with an old-fashioned footlights wash. Although the Annie and Frank duet “Anything You Can Do” invites over-the-top nonsense, the two of them made it all the more effective by being true to the spirit of the song.

Zambello directed this production, making nice use of Court Watson’s simple, effective, truck-laden set, giving it a Broadway look without overstuffing the stage.

Next summer it’s The Music Man, which should be a treat, but I’m also holding out hope for the likes of The Most Happy Fella and Pacific Overtures, which would fare well in the Glimmerglass house with Glimmerglass-type singers.