SUNDANCE — Incredibly, this summer’s Sundance Summer Theatre show was my first exposure to the classic Irving Berlin musical, Annie Get Your Gun. How I’ve gotten through my entire life without even knowing the plot of Annie Get Your Gun I don’t know. Luckily, plenty of the show’s musical numbers were more than familiar: “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “They Say It’s Wonderful,” “Moonshine Lullaby,” “Anything You Can Do,” and others.
The Sundance resort amphitheater is a gorgeous venue set against Mt. Timpanogos, just off the Alpine Loop. Getting to the amphitheater is no small feat: you park in a lot up a hill above the resort (unless you come very early, I assume), are shuttled back down the hill, walk to a tractor that takes you back up another hill, then walk up a small section of stairs to the top of theatre. If you have open seating, get there early. And don’t fret! The small trek from parking lot to your seat helps you recognize and appreciate the majesty of the nature that surrounds you.
Before the July 23rd show began (it opened July 25), a man informed the very full house that we were in fact about to see a preview of the show, which in showbiz terms means that it is more of a dress rehearsal than a performance. It also means that the sets (by Stephen Purdy) weren’t complete, there were a few costume malfunctions (design by Becca Bailey Klepko), and the dance numbers were anything but polished. As a reviewer, I couldn’t help but wonder why this was the performance I was asked to appraise, as it is now difficult for me to tell you what the actual performance will be like. The performance I saw, as stated before, was noticeably incomplete. So bear with me here.
Annie Get Your Gun is set in the 1880’s United States, when Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show toured the country (and eventually the world), featuring talents and personalities like sharp-shooter Frank Butler (Ben Henderson), a host of cowboys and Native Americans, and plenty of dancing girls. In the musical, Buffalo Bill’s troupe ends up in Cincinnati just as the rough, backwoodsy Annie Oakley (Mackenzie Skye Pedersen) comes through town. After a wager brings on a shooting match between Annie and the Wild West show’s leading man Frank, Buffalo Bill (Rob Holcombe) offers her a spot with the show and she agrees. From there, the conflicts are rampant: love triangles, racial tension, inflated egos, financial problems, and more.
The standout of the show (directed by Kymberly Mellen) was Pedersen as Annie Oakley, although it took some time for her performance to grow on me. Her energy and absolute commitment to Annie was obvious and made her a joy to watch, not to mention her songs were all beautiful. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good Bernadette Peters or Ethel Merman song, but Pedersen had an innocence and natural felicity in her Annie that was more than needed in this production, and which made the character all her own. Henderson as Frank Butler was a decent matchup for Pedersen’s Annie, but definitely didn’t have the same charisma. I often found myself wondering what Annie saw in Frank. Jordan Cummings as the show’s manager Charlie and Coral Chambers as Frank’s assistant Dolly provided some great supporting personalities, not to mention well-timed comic relief. I also enjoyed Dan Anderson’s numerous characters, including a brief stint as Queen Victoria. I didn’t love the characters of Buffalo Bill (Holcombe), Tommy (Chase Elwood), or Winnie (Hanna Cutler). Buffalo Bill came across as rather stale and often flat, while the Tommy-Winnie “forbidden love” plot line became tiresome very quickly.
Vocally, the ensemble sounded great, but as I mentioned earlier, many of the full-cast dances needed more work. Also, there were many moments in the first act when the ensemble, attempting to clarify and fill out scenes as background action, were considerably distracting to the main action. They were particularly distracting during the train scenes when acting space was limited. I’m not sure if lighting (although I understand the difficulty in working with a sunlit first act) or a different directorial choice would fix this in the first act, but it was something that improved and became much less distracting as the show progressed.
There were a few weak singers sprinkled in the company, but my biggest complaint with the cast came mostly with weak or unclear character development. I wasn’t ever really sure why Annie and Frank liked each other, let alone why they fell in love. Likewise, after Annie joined the traveling show, all of a sudden the troupe acted like one big family, although the transition was never fully developed. It’s possible that this weakness originates in the script, but I can’t quite believe a rough, uneducated woman who seemed to have spent the majority of her life in the company of her kid-siblings was immediately at ease around a group of traveling performers. There must have been some culture shock there.
The typical spectacle that is called for in many classic big musicals fell flat. There was very little suspense in the first shooting competition between Annie and Frank; this was probably a pacing or special effects problem. Then, in Act 2, when Annie surprises everyone with a new trick, the amount of technical problems made for a disappointing re-creation of what was supposed to be an extremely impressive trick.
Annie and Frank finally displayed genuine emotions for each other by the end of Act 1 in “They Say It’s Wonderful,” but it wasn’t until “Anything You Can Do” that their characters truly found their strides. In both energy and chemistry, they were on fire as they tried to one-up each other. I also really enjoyed the all-male “My Defenses are Down,” complete with hilarious and expressive choreography by Nate Balser. Kudos to the male cast and ensemble for that one. If the entire show found as much unity and polish as that one musical number, Annie Get Your Gun would be a summer musical not to miss.
Unfortunately, the show I saw was ripe with clumsy moments from everyone involved, and the majority of dance numbers needed work–especially the big finale. The production needs a few coats of polish, but I suppose that’s what previews are for. I’d love to hear from those who attend regular performances as to whether or not the production improves.