With musicals, "simple and innocent" usually means "corny and awkward." Irving Berlin's "Annie Get Your Gun" is a rare exception. Like its heroine, it takes all the skepticism you can throw at it and gets on with the show.
It lacks most of the qualities we have learned to value in musicals. Irving Berlin's lyrics have neither the cleverness nor the sophistication of, say, Cole Porter. The music is robust and direct rather than sophisticated or subtle.
And the book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields relies on the most familiar plot in the business: Girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy. As a version of the Wild West, it makes "Bonanza" look like a scrupulous exercise in historical accuracy.
Yet, for all that, it is almost impossible not to have a good time. If you want a musical to lift your mood rather than change your life, "Annie" works.
Berlin's songs, after all, are still an irresistible force. He had a peculiar genius for making carefully calculated effects seem completely spontaneous.
You may have heard tunes like "There's No Business like Show Business," "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly," "I Got the Sun in the Morning" and "Anything You Can Do" a million times.
But they have such a natural, effortless feel that they seem not so much composed as plucked out of the American air.
And the other great Berlin quality that runs through "Annie" is complete self-confidence. No apologies. No explanations. No ironies.
A single moment of doubt would make the whole thing fall apart. But the key to this production is that the director Graciela Daniele and the stars Bernadette Peters and Tom Wopat never let that moment happen.
It's not that they entirely ignore the fact that this is the 1990s. Daniele's direction and Peter Stone's gentle but crucial revisions to the book make two important concessions.
One is that the story is presented as part of the Wild West Show, making the whole question of realism irrelevant. The other is that the relationship between Peters' Annie Oakley and her love and rival Frank Butler is presented, not as the taming of a shrew, but as a fable of sexual equality.
These changes allow both the audience and the performers to enter into the spirit of the story without doubts or reservations. Peters and Tom Wopat, who plays Butler, can go for pure, unapologetic entertainment.
And they revel in it. Peters overdoes her hillbilly accent and mannerisms. But she is so vibrant, so commanding, and so funny that it hardly matters.
With a voice that combines sweetness with power and with her perfect comic timing, Peters makes you forget that the role was written for Ethel Merman and makes it her own.
Wopat, meanwhile, is much more than the "Dukes of Hazzard" beefcake he might be taken for. His warm, rich voice gives him a presence that makes him a credible opponent for Peters.
Most important, they have a real rapport. Especially in "An Old Fashioned Wedding," their jousting seems delightfully unforced and playful.
Throughout the show, from the vivid and witty choreography to the smooth and confident direction, there's a relaxed but irresistible sense of fun.
Being simple but not stupid, innocent but not ignorant is no mean trick. But Peters and Wopat make it look as easy as shooting a bad guy in an old Western.
The revival of "Annie Get Your Gun" has what it takes. Just. It's almost a laboratory demonstration of what a musical needs to be good. It doesn't need a book; it doesn't need sets or atmosphere; it doesn't need choreography; it doesn't need complicated character development.
A good musical needs songs with lilt, power and personality. And it needs stars with lilt, power and personality to put them across. Bernadette Peters and Tom Wopat delivering Irving Berlin's score are the very definition of glorious Broadway entertainment.
The show's original 1946 book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields told a fantasy version of the story of sharpshooter Annie Oakley. It has been revised by Peter Stone and is now even more of a "backstager" - that is, a tale of professional entertainers who work on Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. We open with Buffalo Bill (Ron Holgate) singing that self-flattering anthem, "There's No Business Like Show Business."
But the backstage stuff is mere sketchy setting for the piece's central romance between fancy ace sharpshooter Frank Butler and his smart-alecky rustic challenger Annie Oakley.
Torrential red curls spilling down like a honey waterfall, Bernadette Peters is at first a goofy ragamuffin in buckram and denim. After a few weeks in Buffalo Bill's show, she's in stitched satin and white leather and hanging by her knees from a swing.
She blends hilarity and pathos in the sublime "You Can't Get a Man with a Gun." Here's a song you really do walk out singing; with lyrics like "You can't shoot a male in the tail like a quail," you can't stop.
Peters has fun with her numbers, scatting and drawing out and retarding a laugh-rhyme till we hurt. She drops the humorous edge for a sweeping ballad of rapture, "Lost in His Arms." A skilled interpreter of Sondheim, Peters clearly feels at home in the wash of this strangely sad song and gives it a thrilling lift. The production, though, stages the song amid kitschy fog and sickly blue colors.
Tom Wopat brings a beautiful, large voice and a relaxed charm to Frank Butler, attracted to, but upset by Annie's excellence. Genial, gentle, virile, Wopat is a classic Broadway leading man in the John Raitt mold.
He softly expresses his romantic ideal in "The Girl That I Marry" and Peters reprises a few verses in pained awareness of her inadequacy to his dream. Later, he and a chorus of company cowboys get a very funny and choreographically energized number, "My Defenses Are Down."
Alas, the direction by Graciela Daniele and the choreography by Daniele and Jeff Calhoun are as threadbare and trite as the sets by Tony Walton.
And the politically correct fussing with the old libretto is annoying. The song "I'm an Indian Too" has been eliminated, and a young Indian (Andrew Palermo) has been upgraded to the status of romantic ingenue. Annie herself is a champion of Indians and a budding feminist. Instead of throwing the final contest with Frank in order to win his heart, she enacts a parody of womanly submission.
The old "Annie" book is certainly no sacred artifact, but Peter Stone's nervous multi-culti-feminist updating can get pretty silly. Audiences are hipper than timorous Broadway maestros give them credit for being. And besides, Berlin's wise lyrics anticipate and solve all these problems in the first place.
But nothing matters when Peters and Wopat, those two stellar presences - the sun in the morning and the moon at night, as a song in this very show puts it - are front and center and illuminating the magic of Irving Berlin.
Every so often, though not close to often enough, something sharp and radiant pierces through the acrid smog that is being called ''Annie Get Your Gun.'' That something is starlight, and not surprisingly it emanates from Bernadette Peters, who has taken on the title role in the misconceived revival that opened last night at the Marquis Theater.
Ms. Peters, as you probably know, is one of the few great performers under 70 who came of age in the American musical theater, and she still treats a Broadway stage as though it were her first home. When she starts to sing in that oversize little-girl voice, it feels like an invitation to walk straight into her heart. Even the silliest seeming ditties can become affectingly sincere confessions when delivered by Ms. Peters. She is an enduring and essential reminder of the emotional vitality of a genre that in recent years has lost its way.
When such a rare natural resource is squandered, it's hard not to get angry, and the abuse of Ms. Peters in this tawdry take on Irving Berlin's most famous musical is definitely cause for fuming. As staged by Graciela Daniele, from a revision by Peter Stone of Herbert and Dorothy Fields's original book, this ''Annie Get Your Gun'' takes the idea of hiding your light under a bushel to new extremes. Misdirected and miscast in a role forever associated with its originator, Ethel Merman, Ms. Peters still manages to give off flickers of her special brand of magic. But almost everything around her is conspiring to camouflage it.
This isn't one of those shows where you sit there open-mouthed wondering, ''What on earth were they thinking?'' The intentions of the production's creators are clear: to transform a period piece, with a quaint, creaky book and a great score, into something acceptable to contemporary tastes. Yet in pursuit of this goal, the show seems to be perpetually apologizing for itself, keeping the corny, tuneful work at its center at a disdainful distance.
There's an implicit sneer in the exaggerated delivery of the jokes; in the vulgar, catch-all choreography by Ms. Daniele and Jeff Calhoun; in the uncharacteristically lurid sets and costumes by Tony Walton and William Ivey Long, respectively; even in the mumbling hillbilly drawl Ms. Peters has affected. Presumably the idea was to create a colorful, celebratory fantasy of what the American musical once was. The effect, however, is of a late show in Las Vegas or Atlantic City performed by a worn-out cast that is more than ready to go home.
In Mr. Stone's revision, this story of performing sharpshooters in competition and in love opens with pre-emptive self-consciousness. The musical's famous anthem, ''There's No Business Like Show Business,'' has been moved from the middle of the first act to its very beginning, where it is sung a cappella in ruminative, dreamy style by Tom Wopat, the evening's leading man.
A big-top tent is cranked up by Ron Holgate, the actor who plays Buffalo Bill, whose Wild West show is the pivot of the musical. What we are about to see, we are told, is a play within a play, and there is a firm suggestion that we are not to take it too seriously.
What follows, however, immediately shatters any sense of gentle, nostalgic reverie. The tale of the rustic Annie's rise to stardom as a markswoman and her conflicting romantic pursuit of the dapper Frank Butler (Mr. Wopat), her professional rival, is presented with both hard-pushing shrillness and a weary lack of conviction, and the show seems both to pander to and patronize the audience.
Mr. Stone has spoken in interviews of reshaping the script to eliminate any cause for political embarrassment, especially in its portrayal of American Indian characters and what might have been construed as antifeminist sentiment. Yet what has been substituted somehow seems even more abrasive. It is impossible, for example, not to flinch when one white man says admiringly to another, after being bested by an Indian in a business deal, ''How the hell did we ever get this country away from them?''
In the same vein, the show now features a racist buffoon of a villain in Dolly Tate (Valerie Wright), Frank's lovelorn assistant, who works hard to thwart the romance between her younger sister, Winnie (Nicole Ruth Snelson), and Tommy Keeler (Andrew Palermo), who is half Indian. (The egalitarian Annie, on the other hand, aids the embattled lovers while observing, ''Indians are real fine folks.'')
Dolly's prejudice apparently justifies her being the target of the show's most mean-spirited jokes, which are built around the vanity of a sex-starved woman and are themselves a study in misogyny. To say that the brittle Ms. Wright does not redeem the role is simply to say that she fails to achieve the impossible. And the desperation-edged, broad-stroke quality of her performance is by no means unique to her.
The gravest casualty of this kind of caricature is, of course, Ms. Peters, who for much of the performance speaks in a turgid, twangy accent that brings to mind the inbred yokels of Erskine Caldwell. Her molasses-slow delivery means you can anticipate Annie's threadbare punch lines long before she reaches them. And the bruisable, fragile quality that has been such an asset to her in other roles works against her here.
Merman could triumph as Annie, in both the original 1946 production and the 1966 revival, because her steamroller strength was irony-proof and prurience-proof. In cast recordings you can hear the get-on-with-it determination in her voice. She is utterly winning when she belts the lewd double-entendres in ''Doin' What Comes Natur'lly'' because there's never a wink in her voice. And there was clearly never any danger of her turning into the docile child wife of Frank Butler's fantasies.
In this version, when Frank sings wistfully about ''the girl that I marry'' as ''a doll I can carry'' and someone as ''soft and pink as a nursery,'' he is in fact describing Ms. Peters. There is an emotional delicacy to this Annie, evident even beneath her soiled buckskins and mush-mouthed speech, that is intermittently touching but way out of sync with the burlesque tone of the rest of the show. And the sex jokes, especially the allusions to Annie's breasts, make you squirm in ways they wouldn't have with the forthright Merman.
Still, it is Ms. Peters who provides the show with its only genuine pleasures, and they come when she sings. The orchestrations of Ms. Peters's romantic numbers are joltingly different from any of the other songs, more appropriate to a cabaret act or concert. They have the virtue, however, of nicely setting off the shimmering layers of feeling Ms. Peters brings to ballads like ''Moonshine Lullaby'' and ''I Got Lost in His Arms.'' She seems to pull us all into a collective embrace with a mere catch in her voice or a hint of a tear, and there are moments when nothing seems to exist but the star, the song and the audience.
Not for long. Ms. Daniele and Mr. Calhoun keep cluttering the stage with their distracting, eclectic choreography, which ranges from pure carnival kootch dancing to slow-motion undulations a la Fosse. Both choreographers borrow tricks from their previous efforts: the daguerreotype silhouette effects Ms. Daniele used in ''Ragtime'' and even a hoop dance that brings to mind Mr. Calhoun's work on ''Grease!,'' another unfortunate revival produced by Barry and Fran Weissler.
Most often the dancers evoke the ensembles that shape themselves into flattering frames for aging divas in nightclub acts. This is especially bizarre when Frank sings ''My Defenses Are Down,'' about having fallen for Annie, while a chorus line of posturing cowboys seems to be tempting him to consider other sexual alternatives.
Mr. Wopat, who is best known for the television series ''The Dukes of Hazzard,'' is the only cast member to emerge unscarred. He has a pleasant singing voice and an effortless, low-key presence that is in marked contrast to the other performers, whose oddly disaffected eagerness suggests that some martinet is waiting in the wings for them with a whip. There's little spark between Mr. Wopat and Ms. Peters, but since almost nothing in the show connects to anything else, this is not surprising.
Toward the middle of the second act, when Frank and Annie decide to get married, he speaks complacently about her learning to honor and obey him. Ms. Peters lowers her chin defiantly at this suggestion, and for the first time in the evening, her eyes flash. In the number that follows, the delightful he-says, she-says counterpoint ''An Old-Fashioned Wedding,'' the actress seems to shake off the shackles of her hokey accent and the tedious production to become an unfettered, impish life force, full of both real feeling and gleeful mischief.
It's a short-lived moment of catharsis, but it lasts just long enough to remind you of how good a musical can make you feel. Few people can transmit this sense of pleasure as well as Ms. Peters. It is painful to see such an expert reduced to shooting blanks.
With one cowboy boot planted firmly in our P.C. age and the other still covered in dust from 1946, the new revival of "Annie Get Your Gun" is a show with a distinct identity crisis. Attempting to bridge a 50-year gap in attitudes toward the man-woman question -- to say nothing of the cowboy-Indian one -- the purveyors of the revival only complicate matters by adding a layer of textual irony, stepping back from the Irving Berlin musical's admittedly dated charms even as they present them with gusto. The result is a show that wants to wow us with old-style panache even as its stylistic frame seems to argue that that isn't enough. With all manner of aesthetic barrels blazing, it's no wonder this "Annie Get Your Gun" doesn't quite hit the bull's-eye.
The production's split personality extends even to the performance of its star, the luminous Bernadette Peters. When she's grappling with the hokey, jokey revised book by Peter Stone, Peters seems distinctly unenthused. Steering clear of the brassy tomboy style that presumably marked Ethel Merman's performance in the original, Peters' Annie Oakley is a laidback, slightly dim backwoods girl who speaks in a girlish, molasses-thick Southern drawl.
That drawl sounds particularly odd when it's added to Peters' nasal peep of a voice. The effect is sometimes incomprehensible, leaving one to wonder if it isn't Peters' subtle response to the frustrating contradictions of her character: Annie swoons visibly over her man in one scene, sticks up for Native Americans' rights in the next, develops a feminist conscience in the second act and then abandons it in the final show-down so she can keep her guy. It's no wonder Peters' acting in some scenes lacks focus and verve.
But when she is singing, hold on to your ten-gallon hat. The accent is wisely abandoned, the constraints of an unconvincingly written character melt away, and an artist with a deep understanding of the homespun beauties of Berlin's music stands before us, pouring into each song more honest emotion and theatrical intelligence than can be found in the entirety of the flat-footed book.
Although Berlin tailored his tunes to Merman's own style, you'd never guess it from Peters' intensely felt, personalized interpretations, lushly arranged to suit her singular voice by John McDaniel. When Peters is ardently vocalizing at center stage -- serving up such Berlin classics as "Moonshine Lullaby," "They Say It's Wonderful" and "Lost in His Arms" -- the show moves magically into the sublime realm of musical theater at its most entrancing. Which is why it's such a shame that for most of its running time, it trots tirelessly along in far more mundane regions.
The mixed messages in Graciele Daniele's production are registered from the opening moments. As the curtain rises, a spectacular array of high-tech lights rises from the central playing space, an antique-looking wooden turntable bookended by risers on which the band sits.
Those distinctly 1999 spotlights are in full view of the audience for the show's duration, as is the band, reminding us that we're watching folks put on a show about folks who put on shows, and thus adding a layer of distance to a musical whose plot mechanics already seem pretty old-fashioned. It's hard to remain engaged by the cornball story when you're constantly aware that the folks up there enacting it aren't really expecting you to be. (And it's hard to keep looking at Tony Walton's cluttered set, since its play-within-a-play accouterments keep most of the dramatic action confined to that cramped turntable.)
The dilemma faced by Daniele and company is not a small one, of course: The original Herbert and Dorothy Fields book was probably never more than standard-issue fluff ("not hard to take," faintly praised Variety in '46). Decades of exposure to more sophisticated book musicals only show up its essential thinness.
But Stone's covered wagon-full of contemporarily inflected jokes do little to ameliorate the problem. The Indians here are dressed in traditional feather-headdress style and speak in hoary "heap-big-problem" style. Only their ironic attitude is new: Sitting Bull (Gregory Zaragoza) makes jokes about planning a gambling casino on his reservation, and accuses the government of being an "Indian giver" for taking back oil-rich land. It's a distinctly strange mixture, as is the anything-for-a-man plot tied to Annie's vague proto-feminist stands.
Peters' supporting cast can't be faulted for lack of trying. Tom Wopat is an appealingly manly Frank Butler, with a big if less than supple voice. Valerie Wright snipes her way amusingly through the role of the backbiting Dolly, and Nicole Ruth Snelson makes a bright and charming impression as her sister Winnie, she of the interracial love match.
The choreography of Daniele and Jeff Calhoun is pleasingly light on the Wild West kitsch, but Walton's scenic concept keeps it circumscribed; none of the dance numbers have the great expansiveness and excitement that can send the audience into a delighted frenzy.
But amid a season disastrously lacking in musical highlights, audiences may well be willing to look beyond the production's aesthetic compromises to the bedrock pleasures of Berlin's first-rate score. When the brilliant Peters is singing it, that's pretty darn easy to do.