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'Annie' Is Close to the Mark

Charismatic stars carry the musical, despite issues with the book, staging.


Since its arrival in 1946, "Annie Get Your Gun" has succeeded almost in spite of itself, and its current revival is no exception.

Written as a star vehicle for Ethel Merman, the original production was beset by calamities and was tepidly greeted by critics. Yet, due largely to Merman's presence, it lived a long life.

Much the same happened with this 1999 revival, which endured a troubled developmental period and also ended up relying on its charismatic star: Bernadette Peters.

On the road, the against-all-odds streak continues as Marilu Henner plays the title role opposite Peters' original co-star, Tom Wopat. Wags are quick to note that it's like a late-'70s TV night, with the onetime co-star of "Taxi" playing opposite the onetime co-star of "The Dukes of Hazzard." But Henner has the big voice and winning presence to sell this troubled material, as does Wopat, as the tour passes through Costa Mesa (the Orange County Performing Arts Center, through Sunday), San Diego (the Civic Theatre, Dec. 11-17) and Los Angeles (the Wilshire, Feb. 27-March 18).

Henner brims with energy as she transforms from grime-covered country bumpkin to smart, sexy star of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, in this highly fictionalized account of turn-of-the century sharpshooters Annie Oakley and Frank Butler. What's more, her singing voice, so rich and ringing that even in its softest moments it seems capable of exploding the sound system, lends just the right qualities to the fiercely competitive yet incurably romantic Oakley.

Wopat sounds good too--his strong, theatrical baritone underscoring the virility and unexpected vulnerability of egotistical ladies' man Butler.

Too bad, then, that the book and staging do so much to undermine their work and, with it, Irving Berlin's score (with "There's No Business Like Show Business" among the many hits).

The revision of Herbert and Dorothy Fields' script, by Peter Stone ("1776," "Titanic"), adds a framing device that makes this a show within a show, presented by Buffalo Bill himself, and more ambitiously, attempts to de-stereotype the American Indian characters. Yet the lame jokes given to Chief Sitting Bull (rendered here in a strangely lockjawed performance by former "F Troop" star Larry Storch) insult both him and the audience.

Then there's the staging, originally directed and co-choreographed by Graciela Daniele and re-created for the road by co-choreographer Jeff Calhoun. Slapdash and uninventive, their work too often leaves the performers stranded, as when Henner aimlessly wanders the stage, hugging her rifle, throughout "You Can't Get a Man With a Gun."

The big dances don't look much better, and when they do, it's often because they steal signature moves from other choreographers--most blatantly, a synchronized hat routine that is pure Tommy Tune.

Some nice moments creep in unexpected, though, as during a rendition of Butler's "My Defenses Are Down" that has Wopat turning into a moony-eyed romantic opposite a male chorus of inveterate carousers. The guys are so stunned by Butler's sudden turnaround that they fall to the floor in overwhelmed disbelief, then form a human ball-and-chain, clinging to his leg to keep him from venturing off into marriage.

* "Annie Get Your Gun," Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Today through Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Ends Sunday. $20 to $55. Also: San Diego Civic Theatre, 202 C St., San Diego. Dec. 11-17. $24 to $54.50. Wilshire Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. Feb. 27-March 18. $42 to $67. (714) 740-7878, (213) 365-3500 or (619) 220-TIXS. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.

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