Former gymnast Cathy Rigby may not be the musical theater's vision of Annie Oakley -- that vision was forged by Ethel Merman, who created the title role in the original 1946 production of "Annie Get Your Gun."
Rigby is a different kind of Oakley -- the more realistic, athletic, tomboy kind. It's a little difficult to picture Merman doing some of Oakley's more acrobatic stunts. Not so with Rigby, who not only has her own athletic credentials, she's the same height as pint-sized Oakley.
Sure, Merman's voice was a cannon next to Rigby's smaller and, in the lower register, weaker tones. But darned if this little daughter-of-a-gun isn't a surer shot when it comes to sheer spunk and authenticity.
A touch of authenticity flavors much of the revival that opened its national tour at the Mechanic Theatre last night. Such considerations were hardly a concern when songwriter Irving Berlin and authors Herbert and Dorothy Fields created this musical. But the attention that has been paid to them by director Susan H. Schulman typifies her overall approach, which is respectful without being overly reverent.
The production's treatment of American Indians -- whom Annie encounters after she joins Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show -- is a good example. Although Mauricio Bustamante's Sitting Bull is a comic figure, when he welcomes Annie into the Sioux tribe as his adopted daughter, the ceremony has dignity, and the dancing, choreographed by Michael Lichtefeld, seems based in genuine American Indian tradition.
There's another ticklish matter besides the American Indian issue, however. Acknowledging that "You Can't Get a Man With a Gun," Oakley intentionally loses a shooting match to win the heart of her chauvinistic rival, Frank Butler. Schulman softens this sufficiently to convince us that the pair will at least end up equal partners. But one can't help wondering what would have happened if the director had followed her authenticity instincts one step further; in real life, Butler left the limelight to manage Oakley's career.
Rigby's Oakley is well-balanced by Brent Barrett's Frank Butler. On the one hand, it's easy to believe Rigby's athletic Oakley could outshoot him; on the other, it doesn't take the clever challenge song, "Anything You Can Do," to convince an audience that smooth-crooning Barrett can outsing her.
In the physical production, set designers Heidi Landesman and Joel Reynolds also went for a form of authenticity, one derived from period posters. In addition, much of the scenery has the old-fashioned look of a pop-up book.
It's a successful approach, suggesting the Wild West as seen in children's books. But not surprisingly, it bears a strong stylistic relationship to the sets for "The Secret Garden," a musical that was also designed by Landesman, directed by Schulman and choreographed by Lichtefeld.
The team behind this revival was smart to go with something entirely different from the trademark performance of Merman, who will be forever identified with this most famous role of her career. Instead, in a country where bigger is generally considered better, they went for smaller -- but not necessarily slighter. The outcome, like Rigby herself, is high caliber charm.
What: "Annie Get Your Gun"
When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; matinees Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Through April 4.
Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza.
Call: (410) 625-1400.