Northampton Press

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Theater Review: 'Doin' what comes natur'lly' at Pa. Playhouse

Wednesday, July 30, 2014 by PAUL WILLISTEIN in Focus

There's no theater like community theater.

For a wonderful example, see "Annie Get Your Gun," a good-hearted, energetic production of the classic musical-comedy, weekends through Aug. 10, Pennsylvania Playhouse, Bethlehem.

Mark Breiner directs the large, and refreshingly young, cast, outfitted lavishly and with colorful variety by costume designer Cathy Scharf in cowboy hats, boots, fringed cowboy shirts, Native American outfits, barker suits, and tuxedoes and gowns (Annie Oakley's getups get better and better as the show progresses).

The 30-some member cast, dancers and ensemble bounds about, wheels and reels, high-kicking and is even beautifully balletic in the choreography by Melissa Keiser on a circus red-and-white tent set designed by Brett Oliveira, who also designed the show's lighting.

The actors' enthusiasm is contagious in a good way. You will find yourself toe-tapping to the show's 13 Irving Berlin songs (not including five reprises) that are part of the Great American Songbook. Joseph Fink, on piano, is music director of the nine-piece backstage music ensemble.

Breiner challenges the ensemble and cast with several effective cinematic "slow-motion" sequences. Emphasizing the cartoon-y nature of the show, drum rim-shots stand in for the usual deafening gunshots.

The nearly three-hour (including intermission) Pennsylvania Playhouse production uses the book and score from the 1999 revival of "Annie Get Your Gun," whereby Peter Stone deleted songs deemed insensitive to Native Americans ("Colonel Buffalo Bill" and "I'm An Indian Too"), which are in the 1950 MGM movie starring Betty Hutton as Annie Oakley (played by Ethel Merman in the original 1946 musical).

The heirs controlling the rights to "Annie Get Your Gun" also approved Stone's changing of the show's structure, which opens with "There's No Business Like Show Business" and staging the musical as a show within a show. The Tony Award-winning revival includes all the well-known songs.

The revival seems to have been given a brush-up in dialogue, too, as many of the quips, corny vaudeville jokes and double-entendres seem more laugh-out-loud funny than in the film version.

"Annie Get Your Gun," with lyrics and music by Irving Berlin and a book by Dorothy Fields and her brother Herbert Fields, is a fictionalized version of the life of Annie Oakley (1860 - 1926), a sharpshooter who starred in "Buffalo Bill's Wild West" show, and her romance with sharpshooter Frank E. Butler.

As Annie Oakley, Rebecca Pieper-Bohun wisely chooses not to imitate Ethel Merman nor Betty Hutton. Instead, Pieper-Bohun makes the role her own, with a touch of Carol Burnett, and an accent that stretches words as if they were made of Gumby. For example, "can't" becomes "cane-t." She stays in her hayseed "aww-shucks" character voice for her featured songs, too.

Pieper-Bohun delights with double-takes, her big eyes agog, dimples firmly in cheek. She invokes a gawky Olive Oyl stance and angularity, making her characterization all the more humorous and endearing. Among her memorable solo numbers are "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly," along with the Kids; "You Can't Get A Man With A Gun," and "I Got The Sun In The Morning," the latter with terrific chorale singing by the Company.

As Frank E. Butler, Jason Zimmer has a virile countenance and is in splendid voice for "There's No Business Like Show Business" and his duets with Pieper-Bohun: "The Girl That I Marry," "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better" and "They Say It's Wonderful."

Tommy (Jonathan Lynch) and Winnie (Payton Sherry) are cute as the ingénue couple.

There are many genuinely funny supporting roles, including Buffalo Bill (Bill Mutimer), Pawnee Bill (Ted Williams), Foster Williams (Mark Boyer), Dolly Tate (Monique Haney, a wonderful scene-stealer), Charlie Davenport (W. Michael Hollingsworth, with faux umbrage), and Chief Sitting Bull (John Bracall, masterfully deadpan).

As it approaches its 50th anniversary in 2015, Pennsylvania Playhouse is "doin' what comes natur'lly" with "Annie Get Your Gun": community theater.