The story of Annie Oakley in 'Annie Get Your Gun' is a fictionalized tale of the backwoods sharpshooter from Ohio who became famous traveling in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in the 1880s.
The performers I've seen in the role always created a spunky character, handled the music well and were simply entertaining in one of Broadway's classic plum parts. So often, however, the performers cast have been older — such as Broadway's original Annie, Ethel Merman — and Annie's naiveté, youthful pluck and tomboyish nature didn't come through.
Then along comes Waukesha South High School senior Elena Cramer playing the role in Waukesha Civic Theatre's production of 'Annie Get Your Gun.' Everything about her Annie seems just right, and you almost get the impression that if you talked to her after the show she would punctuate the conversation with 'darn' and 'shucks' in a hillbilly accent — and maybe challenge you to a shootin' match.
Everything from the confident way she handles a gun to the way her whole body melts when she turns to the handsome face of Frank Butler, the shooting star of Buffalo Bill's show, endears the audience to her character.
The show — with its many familiar Irving Berlin tunes — opens on a set that looks similar to the one used by WCT to open Rodgers and Hammerstein's 'Oklahoma' a few years earlier. Both fabulous shows were directed by WCT's artistic director, John Cramer, father of 'Annie's' star.
Rather than the home of Laurie and Aunt Eller, it is the inn of Foster Wilson (Jim Mallmann), who begrudgingly allows Buffalo Bill's show to take place on his property. Annie comes along with her five ragtag siblings, selling all the game Annie has cleanly shot. She soon finds her expertise with a gun lands her in the show — and falls in love with the show's star, Frank Butler (Andrew Kelly).
The two find their romance is strained by their competitiveness to be the best and soon they split. She stays with Buffalo Bill and travels throughout Europe, collecting medals along the way, while he moves on with Pawnee Bill's (Kelly Vance) troupe.
Annie and Frank meet up again at a fancy ball put on by Buffalo Bill in New York, but again their egos get in the way just when it looks like they are ready to kiss and make up.
Just as in 'Oklahoma,' there is a secondary romance featuring two members of the Wild West show, Winnie Tate (Zoe Klett) and Tommy (Joe Lange).
I never realized just how wonderful and funny Annie's lines are, before Cramer cranked them out like buckshot in this show. When she says, 'I can shoot the fuzz off a peach,' there's no denying it.
While she's not a belter, like Merman, she has enough moxie and a strong enough voice to pull off rousing tunes like 'You Can't Get a Man with a Gun' and 'I've Got the Sun in the Morning.'
But I especially liked how she got so comfortable and sentimental when she pulled out her guitar to strum while singing tunes like 'Moonshine Lullaby,' which also featured some nice harmonies with Wild West show manager Charlie (Jim Donaldson), Buffalo Bill (Marty Graffenius), and Tommy, along with the kids in their sleeping car berths in a nicely designed scene.
Kelly's Butler has a lot of swagger, and a silky, pure voice that really works for tunes like 'The Girl That I Marry' and 'They Say It's Wonderful.' I would have liked to have seen him react more to Annie's emotions and body language, which practically explode onstage. The two did have a nice onstage connection to give the love story believability and charm.
Musically, the two were marvelous. Their rendition of the classic 'Anything You Can Do' is an absolute gem.
Other key roles were handled flawlessly, including Graffenius' Buffalo Bill and Jenny Kosek's Dolly, Butler's assistant, whose Carol Burnett-like comedy gives her unlikable character lots to jeer at. Tom Flanagan's Sitting Bull was especially surprising, since the character often is just a throwaway with a caricature treatment. Flanagan has a big, stalwart presence and a deep voice, but a soft side and thoughtfulness that give this Sitting Bull dimension.
A few smaller roles also help earn the show high marks. Mallmann has really grown as an actor on the community stage and his Foster and other roles were nicely done on opening night. Another community theater veteran, Denise Meagher, was delightful in her Sylvia Potter-Porter bit. Donaldson's Charlie was really amped up, which is usually a good thing; yet his outbursts ended up measuring about a 12 on a 1-10 scale and could've been ratcheted down a bit.
Movements and music
The big ensemble cast did fine work with some simple, creative choreography in 'I've Got the Sun in the Morning,' as well as some nice 'wheels' in 'I'll Share It With You.' I also liked Annie, Frank, Charlie and Buffalo Bill's easy flowing movements in front of the curtain for 'There's No Business.'
Music director Anne Van Deusen did a fine job with all these recognizable tunes. 'Props' also to costume designer Laura Hughes and wig master Anthony Mackie, who created some good period looks.
This was perhaps the most well-received show by a WCT audience in recent years. Most every tune was applauded enthusiastically, with a show-ending standing 'O.'
Most of all, give credit to director John Cramer for continuing to keep alive the icons of America's major contribution to the arts, musical theater.
If you go
Who: Waukesha Civic Theatre
What: 'Annie Get Your Gun'
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 13, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 14, and 2 p.m. Sunday, May 15
Where: 264 W. Main St., Waukesha
Tickets/Info: (262) 547-0708, www.waukeshacivictheatre.org