Monday, August 16, 2010

Ravinia's 'Annie' Gets Gun, Hits Mark and Doesn't Skip Out Before Sunset

Theater Review

Annie Get Your Gun
Starring Patti LuPone, Patrick Cassidy & George Hearn
Ravinia Festival, Highland Park, IL

I'd been intending to see Ravinia's semi-staged production of Annie Get Your Gun ever since it was announced, probably sometime in late 2009. I am an avid fan of musical theater and the show's announced star, Patti LuPone, is about as good a practitioner of the art form as any performer active today.

But then, a few semi-funny things happened on the way to mid-August. First, back in March, I saw LuPone in a concert-type performance with Mandy Patinkin. Although her singing was sublime as always, I didn't find the show to be as good as it should have been. Then, at some point in the summer, it was announced that Brian Stokes Mitchell, a Tony-winning Broadway star slated to appear with LuPone in Annie Get Your Gun, would not be doing so; Patrick Cassidy, the lesser-known son of Shirley Jones and/or Jack Cassidy (Shaun is his brother; David his half-brother) was announced as his replacement. Finally, just two weeks ago, I went to see LuPone and other Broadway luminaries perform at Ravinia in a celebration of Stephen Sondheim's 80th birthday. Although what they sang sounded fantastic, the night turned into a fiasco due to the performance lasting only 65 minutes on a night that doubled as a gala dinner for Ravinia benefactors and volunteers. (When an outdoor evening performance ends before it's dark out, you know you're being shortchanged.) 

Although seemingly no fault of LuPone's, the brevity of the concert made me question whether I'd be giving Ravinia any more of my time and money, at least this season for a theatrical-type performance. Although I found Ravinia's public response to less than stellar, they did offer 2-for-1 pavilion tickets to Annie Get Your Gun to all patrons of the Sondheim event. As they eventually extended the offer to everyone (at least those on Ravinia's email list), allowed half-price purchases for odd-number tickets and included lawn seats, I and other family members decided to go on Saturday night.

I sat in the pavilion for just $25 and appreciated the clear sightlines and good acoustics for a discounted price. Although the staging, backed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, didn't really include much in the way of scenery, the musical was being acted out to a certain extent, so actually seeing it was my preference. 

While LuPone is technically a bit too old to be playing Annie Oakley, it didn't matter and she sounded great while seemingly having lots of fun. I thought Cassidy sounded quite good, too, as Annie's love interest, Frank Butler. Venerable stage stars, George Hearn and Joseph Anthony Foronda, supplemented a fine supporting cast, and at a full 2-1/2 hours, everything about the evening was perfect.

Except the show itself. Although Annie Get Your Gun, composed by the legendary Irving Berlin, was a big success in its original 1946 run, a movie version and multiple revivals, like a number of other pre-1950 "classic musicals," I find it to be relatively flawed.

Yes, it contains wonderful songs like There's No Business Like Show Business, Doin' What Comes Natur'lly and Anything You Can Do, but there are several lesser ones, the book has narrative problems and Old West thinking about Indians and feminism wasn't all that updated by 1946.

I much preferred seeing LuPone in Ravinia's past staging of Sondheim works, like Gypsy and Sunday in the Park With George, but it was still a pleasure hearing her belt out the best of Berlin's classic showtunes. In sum, the evening featured an excellent rendition of a famous & fun musical, though in truth, one that's a bit shy of phenomenal. 

But if nothing else, as it was dark when I left after offering LuPone, et al, hearty applause, at least I got my money's worth.

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