Shooting Blanks

Gun-shy: Bernadette Peters and Tom Wopat in Annie Get Your Gun.Photo: Junichi Takahashi

Who would have thought it possible to even dislike Bernadette Peters? Yet her Annie Oakley in the revival of Annie Get Your Gun is something to elicit potshots from the most pacific spectator. It is a mixture of miscasting and misdirecting, but also terrible miscalculation on the actress’s part. When Frank Butler sings to Annie, “A doll I can carry / The girl that I marry / Must be,” it is the sort of thing one tells a ragamuffin bordering on virago. Miss Peters, however, is petite, cute, and cuddly, just an iota short (or long) of JonBenet Ramsey. Her drawl is a farrago of southern, Texan, and Brooklynese, issuing slowly, with many a ritard, rubato, and tremolo in both speech and song. But the matinee audience around me, looking duly papered, responded with nonstop multiple orgasms.

Too bad that the show has two choreographers, Graciela Daniele and Jeff Calhoun, and no director, although the former is listed in that capacity. Even the dances look like leftovers from Ragtime (Daniele) and The Will Rogers Follies (Calhoun). And they are often out of character, as when the large and virile Frank, seated on the floor, latches on to the leg of the last boy in a chorus line and is dragged comically across the stage.

A total overhaul was deemed necessary out of deference to Indians and feminists. Peter Stone was brought in for that purpose: The “I’m an Indian Too” and “I’m a Bad, Bad Man” numbers were accordingly omitted, other excisions and changes were made (replacing ethnic humor with equally dubious big-boob jokes), and a new concept was imposed. We now get Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show performing a play-within-a-play about Frank and Annie, a tired and tiresome device that undercuts the story’s immediacy and emotional impact. Thus, to fit the concept, the production opens gratuitously with “There’s No Business Like Show Business” in tacky Lake Tahoe style; by the time the song is reprised in the appropriate places, it no longer surprises and delights.

The admirable Tony Walton’s sets are pleasant but unduly constricted by being obliged to represent a play-within-a-play. Conversely, William Ivey Long’s costumes are excessive and inappropriate. Most surprising, Miss Peters, in somewhat ragged voice, delivers her songs as if they were unconnected nightclub numbers. But then, I can’t say much for Bruce Coughlin’s arrangements either.

Tom Wopat is a solidly likable, no-nonsense Frank Butler, honestly acted and decently sung. As his assistant, Valerie Wright is the stock comic sourpuss. Ron Holgate is a plausible Buffalo Bill, but Gregory Zaragoza, a genuine scion of the Pima tribe, is a Sitting Bull turned out of P.C. reverence into a wooden Indian Custer would have demolished like a sitting duck. As the male half of the secondary couple, Andrew Palermo sings winningly and dances with spectacular airiness, but his slight stature causes problems.

The laughs are there, all right, many of them added by Stone, and the Irving Berlin score remains indestructible. Still, anyone who listens to a cast recording with the indomitable Ethel Merman or the playful Mary Martin will get a better idea of what this show can be. Miss Peters’s Annie, like this Annie Get Your Gun, misfires.

Shooting Blanks