While sitting in the opening night audience of The Larry Keeton Dinner Theatre‘s “Annie Get Your Gun”, onstage through Saturday, October 22, I quickly realized a review of the show could easily consist of two words…Tonya Pewitt! I’ve said it many, many times, Pewitt is one of my “theatre crushes”, in fact, she may very well be my original theatre crush, having seen her in one of the first shows I reviewed when I resumed my writing career several years ago.
As with any role she takes on, Pewitt is simply enchanting as Annie Oakley. Whether she’s playing Annie early on as a self-educated, gun-toting tomboy hunter or later on, as the iconic fringe-costume-wearing celebrity sharpshooter even those of us who drifted off in history class remember, Pewitt does so with moxie, talent and an inner sense of pure joy of the theatre that courses through her body and, to the audience sheer delight, manifests itself by way of her incomparable stage presences, inspired delivery and pitch-perfect voice.
When I spoke with Pewitt for my recent Rapid Fire 20 Q, I asked her if previous actresses who’ve taken on the role of Annie Oakley influenced her portrayal. She replied that she was most familiar with Betty Hutton’s film turn, but readily admitted she’s a big Reba fan as well. Pewitt’s Annie may indeed be peppered with a touch of Hutton’s spunkiness, but it’s Pewitt’s blissfully twangy voice as Annie, even to the point of smacking quips and vocals out of the side of her mouth, a la McEntire that never mimics, but instead happily reminds one of the redheaded country superstar. Heck, even without having read my recent interview, my companion for the evening leaned over early on in the show and noted the Reba similarities. Interestingly, when Pewitt starred in a production of “9 to 5” a few years back, she somehow flavored her Doralee with a bit of Dolly, again, never impersonating the originator, simply paying just enough homage to stir familiarity in the audience’s mind. Pewitt’s highlights, well, pretty much every scene she’s in, but among my personal favorites are the bawdy for its day, “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly”; the hilarious “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun”–the song contains some of my favorite musical theatre lyrics ever “But they don’t buy pajamas for pistol packing’ mamas”– and my absolute favorite, “Moonshine Lullaby”. Gotta love a bedtime tune about white lightning! Every single second she’s onstage makes us all realize Pewitt can do “anything”, as another of the many Irving Berlin tunes featured in “Annie Get Your Gun” suggests,…”better than you”.
Under the direction of Jamie London and musical director Ginger Newman, “Annie Get Your Gun” proves why it’s a timeless classic. London takes the philosophy of another of the show’s best-known tunes, “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and runs with it, offering the Keeton audience a chance to step back in time when vaudeville and traveling Wild West shows were all the rage. There’s just enough overly animated smiles and physically accented punchlines to get an audible chuckle or a spontaneous cheer from even the most jaded of theatre patrons. Then there’s Newman’s musical direction. Hidden behind the set, Newman invisibly conducts band members Dann Childers, Bob Bowers, Annie Diomedes and Jason Chafatelli through some of the most charming, hummable showtunes musical theatre fans have adored since it debuted on Broadway in 1946. Newman and company present so cohesive a musical score I’m convinced there are bound to be audience members who sadly don’t realize they’re being treated to an evening of live musical accompaniment.
Earlier, I said I could simply write this review using the two words, Tony Pewitt, but thanks to her talented co-stars, I can add a few more words to my review. First up there’s Chris Cavin, who plays Frank Butler, who, until Annie Oakley comes along, is the headliner of the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. Having played Frank Butler previously, Cavin approaches the role with ease and familiarity. The fact that he’s got to be well over six-feet-tall only reiterates his character’s larger-than-life persona. When you figure in his smooth, velvety vocal tones, you’ve got a leading man who’s not just a single-barrel sharpshooter, but a double-barrel dream. His lush vocals on the show’s opening “There’s No Business Like Show Business”, as well as throughout the show in numbers like “My Defenses are Down” and duets with Pewitt on “The Girl That I Marry”, “They Say It’s Wonderful”, “An Old Fashioned Wedding” and the previously alluded to “Anything You Can Do” are the stuff of musical theatre dreams.
While the show primarily centers on Annie and Frank, there’s a subplot or two. Among them, the budding romance of Tommy Keeler, halfbreed (keep in mind this was written pre-political correctness) knife-thrower, and young Winnie Tate, his pretty assistant, played respectively by Austin Jeffrey Smith and Stella London. Both familiar faces at the Keeton, Smith and London shine each other wonderfully. They also beautifully showcase the show’s choreography by Taylor Tracey. From their ‘stair-ography’ in the show’s opening scene to some DWTS-worthy fancy footwork in the show’s ballroom scene, these two seem perfectly matched. No wonder, as this production marks their third time sharing the stage at the Keeton. They are just adept at singing as they are dancing, as proven during their two featured numbers “I’ll Share It All With You” and “Who Do You Love, I Hope”.
Other standouts in the cast include Beverly Grant as Dolly Tate, Frank Butler’s assistant, who also happens to be Winnie’s older sister. Grant is one of those actresses who demands your eye, even when she’s seemingly relegated to a scene’s background. Whether her Dolly is scheming for Frank’s affections, against Annie’s spot in the show (and Frank’s heart), or setting her sights on a consolation prize, Grant playfully engages the audience with with an unbridled zeal that leaves the audience wanting more.
The aforementioned consolation prize to Dolly’s affection comes courtesy of Earl Landree as Charlie Davenport, business manager for the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. Another familiar face to Keeton patrons, Landree is at his best when faced with Grant’s Dolly as a potential love interest.
Special mention must be made of Avert Stenzel, Cole Alsup, Samantha Maddox and Aly Fidler, who play Annie’s younger siblings. The cuteness factor these kids exude is ridiculous. On the opposite end of the age scale, also turning in fun performances are veterans of the Keeton theatrical family Larry Rhodes as Buffalo Bill and Patrick Goedicke as Sitting Bull. Another Keeton favorite, Cary Street turns in another playfully silly gender-bending performance as Pawnee Bill, the owner of an opposing Wild West Show. I told Street after the show, I don’t want to like her in these goofy roles, but I just can’t help it. She’s fabulous, whether donning a mustache to play a man, or starring, choreographing or simply being part of the chorus.
Of course a Keeton show wouldn’t be what it is without an equal balance behind the scenes. In addition to the aforementioned London, Newman and Tracey as director, musical director and choreographer, everyone working on the show pulls their weight and it shows, from Suzanne Spooner-Faulk, the show’s property mistress and stage manager to Jim Manning’s always wonderful set design to Colton Wood’s lighting and sound designer Alan Stokes, the labors of this talented group are evident in every last detail. Speaking of detail, costumer Ashley Wolfe truly puts the finishing touches on the show with some of the most gorgeous costumes–especially Annie’s fringed WIld West Show get-up, seen in the show’s promo image above–I’ve ever seen in any Keeton production.
While most of the non-pc elements of “Annie Get Your Gun” have been removed–including the totally ethnically offensive, “I’m an Indian, Too” (sorry, not sorry, I still love that number), some of the negative connotations associated with the show remain, heck, the overall theme that a woman can’t do what a man can, and she can only get him by trying to fail is still there. But I gotta tell you, that just doesn’t matter. It’s a great show, full of iconic musical number by one of America’s most brilliant composers/lyricists and thanks to The Keeton, with Tonya Pewitt front and center as its star, it just doesn’t get much better.
“Annie Get Your Gun” continues at The Larry Keeton Dinner Theatre (108 Donelson Pike, Nashville, TN 37214) with shows Thursdays-Sundays until Saturday, October 22. The Larry Keeton Dinner Theatre offers dinner and show tickets for $30 (Children 12 and under dinner and show tickets are $20). Dinner seating begins at 6 p.m., with the show beginning at 7. Sunday lunch seating begins at 1 p.m. with the show starting at 2 p.m. Show only tickets are also available for $18 (Adults) and $15 (12 and under). Group discounts are available for $27/ea. For more information, call 615.883.8375 or Click Here.
Be sure and Click Here to check out my recent Rapid Fire 20 Q with the cast. If you’ve enjoyed this review of The Larry Keeton Dinner Theatre’s “Annie Get Your Gun”, why not subscribe to Nashville Arts Critic by entering your email address in the “Subscribe” section to the right of this article. You can also follow us on Facebook,Twitter, Pinterest and Tumbler. Interested in coverage of your performing arts events, be sure and drop me a line at email@example.com.