You could call her history’s first butch with a power-tool: Annie Oakley thrilled audiences around the world with her sharpshooting skills and her outrageous clothing in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
Well, little Annie rides again in a special concert performance of Annie Get Your Gun, running Tue, Aug 2 to 20 at Massey Hall, starring Toronto’s main Mamma (Mia) Louise Petrie as everybody’s favourite tomboy and Mr Achy-Breaky himself, Billy Ray Cyrus, as love interest Frank Butler (a last-minute replacement for Canadian Paul Brandt).
It’s a testimony to the enduring infamy of the tiny gal with the big gun that Herbert and Dorothy Fields originally adapted her story as a stage vehicle for the incomparable Ethel Merman in 1946, with songs by Irving Berlin.
Unfortunately, times being what they were, the classic play contained more than its share of serious racial slurs, particularly toward Natives who figured so prominently in the story.
It was largely due to this proclivity for prejudice that Annie remained largely holstered for several years, before being tweaked into a more decorous version of itself by Peter Stone for the 1999 Broadway production, starring Bernadette Peters.
Stone turned the play into a show-within-a-show, focussing more on the spectacle of Buffalo Bill’s extravaganza, and less on the skewed racial politics of the day.
The main elements remained intact: the diminutive Phoebe Ann Oakley Mozee (often incorrectly referred to as Moses) hones her skills while struggling to feed her large family with the game she kills in the woods of Ohio. Her reputation as a dead shot comes to the attention of impresario Buffalo Bill Cody (Sandy Winsby), who convinces Oakley to join his travelling show alongside fellow gunslinger Frank Butler.
Sparks both romantic and competitive fly between the two as they vie for each other’s affections and the title of best marksperson in the land.
Our bumptious gal nabs the prize but loses the man. Butler rebels at being Annie’s rifle bitch after she soundly beats him in a shooting match. He storms off to a rival show run by Pawnee Bill (Avery Saltzman), leaving poor Annie to be consoled by the enigmatic Chief Sitting Bull – also a real fixture in Buffalo Bill’s enterprise.
It’s your classic wait-till-the-straight-folks-sort-out-their-feelings kinda plot, full of earnest soul- searching and root-’em, toot-’em action, but with the undeniable brilliance of some of the finest songs ever written for a Broadway stage.
Catchy tunes abound, with unforgettable ditties like “Anything You Can Do,” “You Can’t Get A Man With A Gun,” and that showtune-to-end-all-showtunes, “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” This remarkable string of instant classics from Berlin’s score ensures the show’s continuing relevancy, while Stone’s sanitized adaptation is safe enough to avoid offending anyone north of Arkansas.
“I read the original and it really is quite shocking,” says Jonathan Wilson, who plays theatrical producer Charlie Davenport. “We’re doing the revised version, so that’s definitely been reexamined, [giving Indians] the dignity they deserve.
“It’s great that they’re focussing on the amazing music,” says Wilson. And producers decided to gild the lily of Massey Hall’s renowned acoustics with an unusually large 24-piece orchestra.
Theatregoers may remember Wilson from his Dora Award-winning turn as Timon, the mischievous meerkat in Mirvish’s production of The Lion King. He’s excited to be have landed the comedic role for the Massey Hall run, though humble amidst the musical company he’ll be keeping onstage.
“Even though I did Lion King, I don’t consider myself a musical theatre performer,” Wilson says. “But Louise just sounds amazing. Whenever she sings it’s goose bump time.”
Celebrated actor Billy Merasty (Liberty Street, Le Confessional) is thrilled to be filling the moccasins of the legendary Sitting Bull, who provides the narrative for Annie’s journey from muskrat gourmet to famed trigger gal.
“Sitting Bull represents something to me that’s huge,” says Merasty, “a man of colossal accomplishment.
“When he joined the Wild Bill show, he toured Europe – I imagine he found that fascinating, as he was a man of curiosity… classy and intelligent with a strong stoic façade.”
Merasty is relieved that the racially insensitive elements have been removed from the production, and applauds director/choreographer Donna Feore’s continued vigilance in ensuring respectful depictions of Indians in the play.
“They’re going through more changes,” he says. “They’re still fine-tuning with the people who own the rights to the play, making him less stereo-typical, quite slick and smart, a businessman, really.
“It’s intimidating for sure to be playing him. He represents so much of history. But as an actor it’s challenging and thrilling. I’m quite honoured to portray someone of this stature.”
Merasty and co will certainly have a stage befitting an historically significant musical: designer Michael Gianfrancesco (Matt And Ben, Midnight Court) brings his eclectic and inspired touch to the boards, providing both costumes and set for the concert production.
“I’m trying to create the feel of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show,” says Gianfrancesco. “We’re calling it a staged concert, but all the performers are going to be costumed and there’s a bit of a set.
Gianfrancesco is creating a vivid red boardwalk, which will surround the orchestra and serve to elevate the performers, providing ample movement and all-round viewing. A backdrop of large striped banners will evoke the Big Top experience culled from exhaustive research of old photos and posters.
“I think one of the best parts is the show-within-a-show aspect,” says the designer, “and how amazing a spectacle the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show must have been.”
The challenge of such a minimal set means some pretty creative solutions to the visual elements of storytelling and illustrating scene changes.
“We have an incredible lighting designer, John Munro, [who understands that] the lighting needs to be able to take us from the scenes outside or in a train, and then transform the space back into the show itself.
“We’re also using projections of location titles, like a silent movie title, to help convey location and time passing.”
The most fun for Gianfrancesco is clearly the fashion side of things, and he flexes his trademark attention for detail in crafting the right look onstage for each character.
“Annie Oakley was very much from the backwoods,” he points out. “But she grew to really love having quite elaborate show costumes.
“When we first see her, she’s basically in an old suede shirt and a dirty blouse. Then, as she becomes more famous, we see her in her show look: a lot of satins and embroidery and elaboration.
“There’s also a wonderful influence of Mexican and Spanish clothing, which came up through the Texas border, like metal conchos, turquoise jewellery and beading. It’s all very natural, very different from the Rhinestone Cowboy of the ’50s and ’60s.”
He’s also including the quirkier elements of Oakley’s character, such as her penchant for covering her chest with clusters of golden tributes for her shooting skills.
“She always displayed all the medals she’d won. You’d often see paintings of her with them.”
For the townspeople, Gianfrancesco has decided to gather elements from both the 19th and the 21st centuries.
“I think a lot of modern fashion is inspired by the Wild West,” he says. “Cowboy hats and boots – it all has a great sense of the history of North America.”
The design team is busy scouring the city for the materials needed for such a large undertaking, and Gianfrancesco is gleefully remorseless in his ongoing quest for the authentic western look.
“I’ll tell you one thing: there’ll be a shortage of suede fringe when we’re done in Toronto!”