Annie Oakley — Deborah Voigt
Frank Butler — Rod Gilfry
Buffalo Bill Cody — Jake Gardner
Dolly Tate — Klea Blackhurst
Pawnee Bill — Peter Macklin
Chief Sitting Bull — Nick Santa Maria
Music and Lyrics: Irving Berlin
Book: Herbert Fields and Dorothy Fields
Director: Francesca Zambello (Artistic and General Director of Glimmerglass)
Conductor: Kristen Blodgette
Set and Costumes: Court Watson
Glimmerglass Festival 2011
Did it all start with Ezio Pinza – this crossover practice of opera stars singing American musical theatre? Pinza certainly was the most famous, making ladies of the late 1940s swoon in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. The latest crossover explorer is Deborah Voigt singing the role of Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun at Glimmerglass. Playing Annie gives her something in common with Susan Lucci, the soap opera actress; Reba McEntire, the country singer; as well as Ethel Merman. Unexpected company for an internationally renowned dramatic soprano.
Annie Get Your Gun is based on the true story of Annie Oakley, a petite sharpshooter from Darke County, Ohio. When the naïve, illiterate backwoods girl arrives in Cincinnati with her younger siblings to sell animals she’s killed, she is enlisted by a local innkeeper into a shooting challenge sponsored as a promotion by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show: They’ll give $100 to any local person who can beat their star, Frank Butler (San Francisco Opera baritone, Rod Gilfry). Oakley immediately falls head over heels for Frank, outshoots him, wins the money and joins the show; Frank falls for Annie as well. Thinking she’s going to make him love her even more, she surprises him with a complicated shooting trick for the show. Instead, his ego crushed, Frank leaves both her and Buffalo Bill Cody’s show and joins the rival Pawnee Bill’s Far East Show.
The 1890s weren’t a great time for wild west extravaganzas: Both the Buffalo Bill and Pawnee Bill shows go broke. But to save the day Annie has offered Buffalo Bill the $100,000 worth of medals she collected when the show toured Europe. She never stopped pining for Frank; when the two shows plan to merge – each thinking the other has money – she hopes to merge with Frank. They decide to marry. But after seeing her medals, his ego gets wounded again, and he changes his mind. In one last shooting duel, Annie deliberately loses to Frank (feminists throughout the audience audibly cringed here) and wins him back. The shows merge, and indeed there’s no business like show business.
Jerome Kern was the first choice to write the music for Annie Get Your Gun. The lyrics and book were to be by Herbert Fields and his sister Dorothy Fields. But Kern died before he could start on the score. The producers, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, selected Irving Berlin as Kern’s replacement, but Berlin would accept only if he wrote both music and lyrics. The Fieldses then agreed to write just the book.
Annie Get Your Gun opened in May of 1940. The New York Times gave it only a polite reception, calling Berlin’s score “pleasant,” the dancing “amiable and unaffected” and the book something that “doesn’t get anywhere in particular.” But with an opportunity for “Ethel Merman to roll her eyes and to shout down the rafters,” the Times predicted that the “agreeable” show would run for a long time. It did: 1,147 performances to be precise. It’s had two major Broadway revivals: one in 1966, starring Merman (at age 58), and one in 1999 originally starring Bernadette Peters, who was followed by Lucci and McEntire. Betty Hutton played Annie in the 1950 movie.
There is no doubt that it is great fun seeing a refined, beautiful, 50-year-old opera singer get down and dirty, playing a backwoods sharpshooter. In fact, that is the raison d’être of this production, which runs on specific dates through August 21, 2011. Voigt seemed to have a ball playing the role. The audience rooted for her especially in the early scenes where she is the most hick-like and seems a bit uncomfortable executing the choreography. As the Annie Oakley character gained more confidence and refinement – appearing in a long white gown with medals across the bosom and, at the end, in a long white wedding dress – Voigt’s comfort level rose. She was obviously more in her operatic element and became visibly freer.
Of course the big question on the table is this: Is Voigt as impressive in a musical as she is in an opera? The answer is yes – except when she’s singing. Voigt stayed in character when she was both speaking and singing. But the problem is that her non-operatic voice is not particularly strong. She has beautiful tone, of course, but it felt as if she were holding back. One wished Gypsy’s Mama Rose could walk down the aisle and holler “sing out, Deborah.” At times it was hard to hear Voigt above the orchestra. Only in one song – “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better” when she challenged Butler with “I can sing any note higher than you” and Voigt used her operatic voice – did she really let go.
According to an Eastman Music School-trained opera singer “Often opera singers think they have to sing musical comedy differently, and to some extent they do. It’s hard to make that adjustment. Audra McDonald, a classically trained singer, goes easily from one to the other.” So does Kristin Chenoweth.
Merman never had this problem. She never had class to overcome and she never had anything approaching an operatic voice. She was a perfect backwoods broad.
There were signs early on that this Annie Get Your Gun was being presented by an opera company. First, the orchestra was 42 pieces and was placed where an orchestra should be: right in front of the stage. Not on the side of it, not hidden in a room and electronically piped into the theatre, not over the stage and not under it as in South Pacific at Lincoln Center. (One of the great theatre moments in recent memory was when the South Pacific stage rolled back to reveal the 31 piece orchestra – enormous by today’s Broadway standards – to the cheers of the audience.)
Next, the entire production of Annie Get Your Gun at Glimmerglass in Cooperstown, New York, was performed without acoustical enhancement either for the orchestra or for the actors. It was goose-bump-raising to hear the overture, with its gorgeous Berlin melodies and toe-tapping hits, played the way it was when the show premiered 65 years ago.
Finally, on a less auspicious note, the program writers, following their opera format, failed to include a list of songs, which any Broadway musical lover knows is de rigueur. And what a list it is! Most of the songs in this show have become American Songbook standards including “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “The Girl That I Marry,” “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun,” “They Say That Falling In Love Is Wonderful,” “I Got the Sun in the Morning” and even “An Old Fashioned Wedding” written for the 1966 Lincoln Center revival. (This song is in the same format – a duet of two separate songs that are then sung together homophonically – as the hit from Berlin’s and Merman’s 1950 musical Call Me Madam, “You’re Just in Love.”)
Rob Gilfry gave an acceptable performance as Frank Butler, except when he went into his operatic vibrato. It seemed so out of character with a professional sharpshooter. (Note: Merman had a distinct vibrato as well, but it defied categorization.) Klea Blackhurst as Butler’s assistant, Dolly Tate, is a Broadway belter who was strong even when she sang softly. She reminded us how a Broadway musical should sound. Jake Gardner as Buffalo Bill Cody, Peter Macklin as Pawnee Bill and Nick Santa Maria as Chief Sitting Bull did a fine job heading the ensemble of 31 performers.
The beautiful front curtain piece of an Annie Oakley poster, painted in Victorian blues, reds and oranges, hinted that this was going to be a lavish production. But at times the production felt sparse, especially when painted blue boxes were wheeled around the stage serving as storage containers for the show at one moment and town grandstands the next. There was ingenuity at play, especially when some performers bounced on train seats while others behind them rolled signs of station stops across the stage to indicate the train’s movement. This creative device charmed the audience into applause.
There’s a lesson here for all crossover artists: Pick your roles carefully. Some lend themselves easily to operatic voices – Emile de Becque in South Pacific, Fiona in Brigadoon, the title character in Kiss Me Kate, to name just a few. Some, including Annie Oakley, do not.
Annie needs a game gal without much refinement and class. Voigt was certainly game, and that alone made the show worth seeing. Even with her disappointing singing, Voigt was charismatic and utterly charming. Try to catch the show. You’ll have as much fun watching as Voigt does performing.