Big egos often get in the way of the blossoming of love. It is only when we learn to pull back and open-mindedly engage in a give and take, and realize we don’t always have to be right or the best, that we can cherish another as much as we love ourselves. This is charmingly examined in the ahead-of-its-time “Annie Get Your Gun,” which is immortalized by Irving Berlin’s music and lyrics, originally choreographed by Graciela Daniele & Jeff Calhoun, written by siblings Herbert and Dorothy Fields, and revised by Peter Stone. The musical first delighted Broadway audiences in 1946, but even 72 years later, remains topical in how it evaluates equality between the sexes.
Though it is garnished with some literary and fictional freedoms, “Annie Get Your Gun,” which can be seen at the Candlelight Pavilion in Claremont, CA, through April 14th, is an appealing country-western love story. Keenly directed by James W. Gruessing Jr., with faithfully sublime musical direction by Douglas Austin, and rousing choreography adapted by Janet Renslow, this 2018 production romantically entwines established suave sharpshooter, Frank Butler, who is the star of Buffalo Bill’s traveling gun show, and the poor and unschooled, albeit socially precocious woman, Annie Oakley, who beats him in a competition and then steals his heart. Supporting characters — inclusive of show-business personnel, cowboys, and Native Americans — comprise this whimsical classic where everyone mostly gets along. The winsome set design by Mitch Gill and Chuck Ketter, which is quaint and classy all in one, as well as the authentic-looking costumes by Merrill Grady – from chaps and cowboy hats to gowns and tuxedos – invite us to cast aside our doubts and take part in this feel-good show.
Brent Schindele, who plays Frank Butler (Johnny Fletcher will take over the role from March 23rd), and Jamie Mills, who is Annie Oakley, are palpably endearing together in their scenes and musical numbers. Schindele comes across with a disposition that is never so overly confident that it’s off-putting. Granted, we might suitably fault his character a little when he describes how he wants his woman to have very certain specifications (“The Girl That I Marry”), or for becoming jealous when he sees Mills’ Annie have a bigger poster, but his growing selflessness in the matters of love eventually win us over. Impressively, Mills is able to lead and play off of Schindele’s energy at every turn. As a result, Annie’s momentum builds, as does the development of her younger siblings — Jessie (Allyssa Entz), Nellie (Brooklyn Vizcarra), and Jake (Lucca Beene) – who rise above their impoverishment and illiteracy to become more cultured. With Frank and Annie on an equal-level playing field, Schindele’s smooth vibrato and Mills’ mellifluous Southern-twang add up to amusing, mirthful, and tender moments during “They Say It’s Wonderful,” “An Old-Fashioned Wedding,” and especially the mischievously fun “Anything You Can Do.”
The mid-nineteenth century ambiance feels as lush as it does because of the supporting performers, who effectively complement Schindele and Mills’ back-and-forth, affectionate interplay. Randy Hilton’s Buffalo Bill, who introduces and closes the narrative, is as bona fide and legitimate as they come, and at some points reminds the viewer of Jeff Bridges. Bill’s friend and competitor, Pawnee Bill, is depicted by Jim Skousen, whose mustachioed affability makes for a simpatico character. Greg Nicholas is Charlie Davenport, the sardonically funny general manager of Bill’s globe-trotting troupe of marksmen, who has a quick snappiness and observational nature about him that lends well to being the one who most echoes the audience’s perspective.
Additionally, assistant to Butler is Dolly Tate, a role played marvelously by Erica Marie Weisz, who is usually dressed in a beautiful red-and-white pinstriped dress, and yearns to have the gun-slinging “champeen” Butler to herself, but to no avail. As Dolly, Weisz’s pronounced gesticulations and mannerisms sell her exasperation with how things usually don’t turn out in her favor. Another actor who conveys non-verbal expressions with measured skill is Michael Lopez, who gives a tactful and empowered performance as Chief Sitting Bull, an investor in the touring gun-show business. Lopez’s characterizations allow Sitting Bull to flourish as one who is clever, heartfelt, insightful, and strong-minded. Sitting Bull also has a well-balanced vantage point of the proceedings, and so we also see him as arguably the smartest character on stage.
As previously alluded to, the choreography by Renslow in this show is certainly a pleasant surprise, and the two principal characters who accentuate it the most is another lovestruck and unlikely love match between the misunderstood half-Native American, half Irishman in Tommy Keeler (Jacob Narcy), and Dolly’s sister, Winnie Tate (Kylie Molnar). In “I’ll Share It All with You” and “Who Do You Love, I Hope,” Narcy flies through the air, spinning, and windmill-kicking with ease, while Molnar displays her pliability by doing the splits across two wooden cases. In a similar vein, the ensemble performers, including the graceful Aria Alekzander, Hana Bible, Josh Kurator, John McGavin, Shelby Monson, Tina Nguyen, Spencer Ty, Daniel J. Reyes, Matthew Ryan, and Andrea Williams make for a great unit with their creatively disarming and sometimes complex choreography (e.g., falling to the ground in unison during “My Defenses Are Down”), which is carried out effortlessly.
Certainly, while there have been productions with more pomp, circumstance, and fanfare, the Candlelight Pavilion’s presentation of “Annie Get Your Gun” stands out by being humble, staying close to its classic roots, and being directed by Gruessing Jr. with good taste and sensibility. The evolving romance between “Little Miss Sure Shot,” Annie Oakley, and Frank Butler, is also a sweetly edifying arc to watch unfold because it has something very incisive to say about undue pride and ego as deterrents to an equal and harmonious co-existence between loving partners. Just as “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” there’s no love like honest love.
For more information about seeing “Annie Get Your Gun” at the Candlelight Pavilion, please visit candlelightpavilion.com