Photograph by Nancy Fitzgerald
Shooting Stars: Annie Oakley (Jessica Raaum) and Frank Butler (Byron Westlund) aim for stardom in 'Annie Get Your Gun.'
Double Barrels Of Fun
Foothill Music Theatre updates the Old West of 'Annie Get Your Gun'
By Marianne Messina
THE SUMMER production of Foothill Music Theatre, Annie Get Your Gun, finally brought me up to speed on a tenet that folks from Maoist China to modern America have long considered a no-brainer: too much information can spoil a good thing. Sure, no one expects facts from a musical, even one that's been updated (by Peter Stone) to smooth out its 1940s-era sexism and racism. But if the facts are staring at you from several thoughtfully prepared fact sheets (a good presskit for instance), they can sure shoot up a musical.
Reading that the real Annie Oakley, on whom the musical is based, was born "into poverty; her mother unable to feed several children, placed Annie in a poor farm where she suffered abuse," kind of tilts the cheery song "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly." As Annie (Jessica Raaum) extols the folksy, uneducated life, the song drips irony in buckets. As for Annie's gun skills, considering how difficult it is to safely depict sharpshooting on a stage crammed with actors, Foothill's solution is ingenious and pretty. But Annie's bio says that she could "shoot a dime tossed 90 feet in the air or shoot the ace of hearts out of a card at 30 paces." So watching her shoot really fat balloons from 5 paces couldn't help but disappoint.
The bio also reports she once shot 4,772 (out of 5,000) glass balls out of the air. This sure deflated the big showdown between her and her lover/rival Frank Butler (Byron Westlund)—a mere 10 clay pigeons. The biggest ouch, however, involves Chief Sitting Bull. Positioning him as a gambler/trickster character (an amusing portrayal by Steve Completo), the updated script nobly attempts to empower Sitting Bull, who, in fact, adopted Annie. He later made the government nervous and, according to the fact sheet, was shot "by a group of Indian police who had been sent to arrest him." In light of that tidbit, casino jokes ignoring the gold fever redux that has embattled present-day casino proceedings are too much history repeating itself for comfort.
Stone's Annie update scores better marks for the character of Tommy (Ted Zervoulakos). The half Irish, half Native American knife thrower and his lovely target Winnie (Jennifer Martin) won the audience at a recent production, partly thanks to Zervoulakos' versatility on the dance floor (including acrobatics), but also for the couple's sanguine, persistent love under the shadow of Dolly's (Katie O'Bryon) prejudice. Being Winnie's sister/guardian, Dolly annuls the underage Winnie's marriage, but Tommy shrugs it off as a temporary setback.
With the leading couple, the setbacks come from within. As each vies to be the No. 1 sharpshooter, Annie's moments of arrogance clash with Frank's moments of male pride. (Forget that the historical Frank Butler smoothly became Oakley's manager and let her rake in the bucks shooting.) Westlund's reasonable Frank and Raaum's upbeat, down-home Annie create that spark you can root for in a couple, despite their foibles or the plot's failings.
With shimmery gala gowns, velvety bolero jackets and enough suede, fringe and chaps to equip a rodeo, Janis Bergmann's costumes bring life to the big production numbers, like "There's No Business Like Show Business." The press info explains that this monster hit was originally an afterthought, quickly slapped together to fill in scene changes. Yet the crisp details about showbiz in the lyrics, down to waking up with makeup behind your ear, show Irving Berlin's rapturous love for the biz. Of course, the whole point of a musical is the candy coating, and there's something to be said for "smiling when you are low." Which brings me back to the cognitive dissonance of thinking too much about the history behind the musical. Next time I won't read the contextual notes.
Annie Get Your Gun, a Foothill Music Theatre production, plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through Aug. 20 at Smithwick Theater, Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills. Tickets are $10-$24. (650.949.7360)
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