‘Annie Get Your Gun’ Reviewed
The Rockaway Theatre Company has made an inspired choice for a summer musical production this year—composer Irving Berlin’s tour-de-force, Annie Get Your Gun, which opened on Friday at the Post Theater in Ft. Tilden. Many theater-goers know the outlines of the plot—legendary sharpshooter Annie Oakley (played by Catherine Leib) finds love and success while touring with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. In a modern twist, she also eventually earns the respect of her beau, rival sharpshooter Frank Butler (played by Walter Birkhold). The role of Annie was originated on the stage by the late, great, Ethel Merman.
The setting at the Post Theater is auspicious. When you arrive, recall that you are sitting in a venue that served up entertainment to countless U.S. servicemen stationed at Ft. Tilden during wartime. Also keep in mind that Berlin composed the musical shortly after he had completed a grueling three-year tour entertaining the troops abroad during World War II. All of this is context for the experience of seeing this glorious show, directed by John Gilleece, with music conducted by Jeffrey Arzberger.
Berlin composed the “nearly perfect score” in 1946, at the peak of a career that eventually spanned 8 decades. Among the men dubbed the “Greatest American Songwriters of All Time,” only Irving Berlin and Cole Porter wrote BOTH music and lyrics for their songs. This explains much of the genius of the show. In constructing the lyrical ballad, They Say [That Falling In Love Is] Wonderful, which Berlin filled with beautiful words and notes, he chose a simple word—“and”— then used it to connect two phrases of the song by hitching it to a haunting musical note, sung with a passionate and dramatic pause. This may be the greatest musical “and” that was ever sung on the American stage. Space does not allow me to comment on each of the other inspired numbers from the score that have since become songbook classics. Suffice it to say that if you’ve heard them once or twice, you can never forget: The Girl That I Marry, You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun, I Got the Sun in the Morning, and Anything You Can Do [I Can Do Better].
We also experience a true master plying his craft with the clever, syncopated “double” song, An Old Fashioned Wedding, performed in Act II, Scene 2 by Leib and Birkhold. In a “double,” the music and lyrics of two distinguishable songs are performed, by two different characters, side by side. Getting this to work takes coordination, and the actors have quite a task to convey their separate emotions within the same musical vehicle. At the Sunday matinee performance, this was perfectly executed by Leib and Birkhold—as they tracked each other’s volume level and phrasing like “pros.”
Speaking of the artistry of the company that staged this production, I’ve written on more than one occasion that RTC is the quintessential community theatre group. Like Irving Berlin after World War II, they are a group mending their spirits following the recent death of one of their guiding leaders—the beloved Peggy Vivino. The show’s sentimental ballads are the emotional counterpoint, while the driving connector, the crowd-pleasing, There’s No Business Like Show Business, truly illustrates what this particular company is experiencing at present. With a new costumier, choreographer, and several actors new to the company, they are determined to “go on with the show.”
The impressive blaze of colorful costumes and evocative sets, plus enthusiastic dancing and singing, fill the audience with a dose of Berlin’s patriotism and optimism about America’s promise, something many of us can use these days.
Veteran Musical Director Walter Birkhold’s surprising transition in this production, stepping from behind the baton to star as leading man Frank Butler, shows that he is truly a versatile member of the company. The supporting actors and chorus members work in tandem to transport us to frontier Ohio of the 1800’s.
Perennial favorites include Cliff Hesse as Buffalo Bill, Chaz Peacock as promoter Charlie Davenport, Susan Corning and Jodee Timpone, who alternate in the role of Frank Butler’s assistant Dolly Tate, and the adorable pairing of Kim Simek and Luke Fontana as young lovers Winnie and Tommy. Jose Velez also cuts quite a figure in full Native American regalia as Chief Sitting Bull. These actors have toiled many hours to perfect the ability to speak their lines in appropriate regional dialect. Leib has one of the more challenging scripts to master, and has done so with utter polish.
I appeared in my own high school’s production of the show almost 40 years ago, and hence, enjoyed singing along, word for word. Since the show is a full three hours long, I was not sure my teen-aged daughter would be so taken by the 1940’s era sentimentality, but I was wrong. She sat rapt throughout, enjoying the ballads as well as the production numbers.
Get a ticket to experience this great American musical right here in your own neighborhood, before it closes on July 24. Experience the genius of the patriotic Irving Berlin, who also composed God Bless America. Enjoy the artistry of our home-grown, not-for-profit theatre company. These local volunteers have polished the Post Theatre until it shines with their artistic vision. Don’t miss Annie Get Your Gun!
Seats can be reserved by calling the RTC hotline at 718-374-6400, or by making reservations online at www.rockawaytheatrecompany.org.
The remaining run includes 8 p.m. performances on Fri. July 15, Sat. July 16, Fri. July 22, and Sat. July 23. There are also 3 p.m. matinees on Sun. July 17 and Sun. July 24.