AISLE SAY Philadelphia


Book by Herbert & Dorothy Fields
Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin
Musical Direction by Eric Barnes
Choreography by Mercedes Ellington
Directed by Richard Parison
Starring Andrea McArdle
Prince Music Theater
1412 Chestnut Street at Avenue of the Arts, Phila., PA 19102
Through Dec. 31, 2006
Box Office: (215) 972-1017

Reviewed by Claudia Perry

Prince Music Theater has chosen to resurrect the old warhorse, Annie Get Your Gun starring Andrea McArdle and one must give director, Richard M. Parison credit for breathing life once again into this vehicle originally written to show off the voice of Ethel Merman. For this show which opened in 1946 is nothing more if not a string of numbers sung by the leading lady linked together by a sweet, funny, dated love story. Ah, but the music and lyrics by the inimitable Irving Berlin that links it together is another story, or rather it is the story. For every song is a great song There's No Business Like Show Business, You Can't Get a Man With a Gun, They Say It's Wonderful, I Got Lost in His Arms, I Got the Sun in the Morning, Moonshine Lullaby, The Girl That I Marry, My Defenses are Down, Anything You Can Do and Old Fashioned Wedding which was added for the 1966 revival on Broadway with La Merman revisiting the role she made famous.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show has just come to town and in order to drum up business they challenge a local marksman to a shooting match with their famous sharpshooter, Frank Butler. Annie Oakley has also come to town to sell her freshly shot game to the local hotel. After the hotel owner witnesses her shooting expertise, he puts her up against Mr. Butler. Annie wins the match and Buffalo Bill offers her a job with his road show. Already smitten by Frank, Annie readily accepts a job to work as Frank's assistant and soon she is doing her own small shooting tricks. On the road together, Annie and Frank fall in love. But when Annie does a star turn and out shoots Frank in the show - his ego is crushed. He leaves the show and joins up with the competition, Pawnee Bill. Annie is devastated, but the Wild West Show travels overseas and Annie gets to perform for the crowned heads of Europe. But on her return to the states it's all show and no dough - as Annie comes back with a chest full of medals but no bankroll. So Buffalo Bill decides to try and pull off a merger with Pawnee Bill. This brings Annie and Frank back together again. But their old rivalry comes between them once again and they have one more shooting match to determine who is the champion shot of the world. This time (with the help of Sitting Bull and Charlie) Annie is convinced to lose the match and win the man.

Most praiseworthy is Musical Director Eric Barnes who has done a terrific job in getting the ensemble to sing together in perfectly blended harmonies. For the first time in a long time I could actually hear all the individual parts as they were probably meant to be heard. Perhaps this is due in part to the Sound Design by Otto Munderloh which was a revelation -- picking up every nuance and whisper. (Mr. Munderloh they need you over at the Merriam - where sound is perpetually a problem.) Vocally it's a great show. Jeff Coon sings the role of Frank Butler as it was meant to be sung and seems to have a great time doing so. His big, clear baritone fills up the stage and he is perfectly cast as the macho showboat who is out shot by "Little Sure Shot". Balancing his braggadocio with a twinkle in his eye, he is an eminently likable Frank, as he should be. As Annie Oakley, Andrea McArdle has a fine, pure voice and sings with exceptional skill and clarity. Having seen her many years ago in "State Fair", her acting skills have come a long way. She comes off as sweet and love struck with Frank and she and Mr. Coon have an easy rapport on stage. She is an Annie of the Bernadette Peters variety - demure and feminine. I do believe that a more tomboyish, backwoods performance could have been coaxed out of her if the director had had the time to do so. If her character had started out this way, we would have gotten to see the transformation from hillbilly to show biz butterfly which the role demands. And perhaps if her character had been more developed a lot more of the jokes that are inherently written into Annie's songs would have landed better. Mary Martello not missing a beat, stands out as the nefarious Dolly Tate, the only real villain in the play. Christopher Coucil who also played Buffalo Bill in the recent Broadway revival is wonderful. John Sherer is delightfully magnetic as Charlie Davenport -- reminding one of a young Fred Willard and Arthur Ryan is amusingly stoic as Chief Sitting Bull - the deadpan chief with all the best one-liners.

Though there is not a lot of dancing in this show, it was evident that the chorus was picked for its vocal ability and not it's dancing skills. This being the case it would have behooved everybody to cut the endless Native American adoption ceremony that precedes I'm An Indian Too. Thankfully, the director chose to keep this song in the show as opposed to the recent revival which cut it deeming it politically incorrect.

The set by Todd Edward Ivins is simple and very effective and the lighting by Shelley Hicklin shows it off to great advantage with it's orange and pink western skies. The costumes by Maggie Aker-Atkins are incredibly spotty. The men seemed to have great fringed jackets and Dolly was outfitted in big elaborately crafted dresses in hot colors. I later learned that Dolly's costumes were rented. On the other hand, Ms. McArdle's costumes were designed specifically for her and they were dreadful. Give the star of the show something decent to wear please! If you're going to design costumes for the leading lady they had better be better than the old ones you rent. Where's the suede, leather and buckskin? Where's the cowgirl skirt with petticoats and fancy boots? Where's an Indian costume with beads and feathers, hello? Ms. McArdle has a lovely figure which was never shown off to advantage and if I saw her in one more pair of dreary culottes I was gonna spit! Okay, I'm done. I've vented.

All and all with these minor flaws, the show with its great music and strong leads is still a highly worthy production.

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