Is Annie Get Your Gun the greatest of all American musicals? I doubt many musical-theater scholars would regard it as a contender. And I might not either, if I hadn’t just seen a wonderful revival of the show at the enterprising Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, New York.
First of all, I could make a strong argument that Irving Berlin’s score is, front to back, the best ever written for a Broadway show. From the plainspoken, high-spirited character songs (“I Got the Sun in the Morning”) to the touching but never treacly ballads (“I Got Lost in His Arms”), to its great showbiz anthem (“There’s No Business Like Show Business”) and the sparkling comic duets (“Anything You Can Do,” “An Old-Fashioned Wedding”) — even the throwaway filler numbers (“My Defenses Are Down”) — there’s not a clinker in the bunch.
The story (by Dorothy and Herbert Fields) about sharpshooter Annie Oakley and her rivalry/romance with Wild West Show star Frank Butler may not have the depth or social import of a Rodgers & Hammerstein classic like South Pacific or The King and I. But the feminist credentials of this 1946 show hold up pretty darn well in the #MeToo era; its cynical view of show business is surprisingly modern; most of the dated treatment of Native Americans has been scrubbed out in revisions over the years; and even the typical on-again, off-again romance seems more adult and less artificial than in many musical-comedies of the era (Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate, for example).
With a nod to John Doyle — the director who innovated the concept of having actors double as musicians onstage — and possibly to the new revisionist Broadway revival of Oklahoma!, Sarna Lapine’s production is a stripped-down, back-to-basics reinvention. Instead of the usual orchestra, there’s a small Western-style string band, with some of the cast members pitching in on violin, guitar and accordian. This doesn’t just suit the intimate Bay Street stage; it gives the songs a freshness and emotional resonance I hadn’t experienced before. The duet between Frank and Annie on “They Say It’s Wonderful,” with Frank (Matthew Saldivar) providing solo guitar accompaniment, may be the most affecting rendition of that song I’ve ever heard.
Alexandra Socha, as Annie, is a far cry from the Ethel Merman-Betty Hutton brashness usually identified with the role. She’s headstrong all right, but petite and even winsome, with a vulnerable quality that gives the character new shadings. And if her voice might have a hard time filling a Broadway house, she embraces a song like the beautiful “Moonshine Lullaby” with such delicacy and warmth that it nearly brought me to tears. She can’t get a man with a gun, but this gal has the goods.