It may be a stretch to argue that anything Ethel Merman can do Deborah Voigt can do better. Still, there's no denying that the Wagnerian soprano hit her target, got her man and won the crowd at Glimmerglass Festival's opening-night performance Saturday of the Irving Berlin classic.
Voigt, whose much-anticipated crossover from Wagner, Verdi and Strauss has been the talk of the town for the past year or so, delighted the crowd when she first came onstage to sing Doin' What Comes Natur'lly sporting a Davy Crockett-like deerskin outfit, leather hat and long curley-blonde hair befitting a country gal from Ohio.
On the heels of her performance as yet another strong-willed cowgirl (Minnie) in last January's Metropolitan Opera production of La Fanciulla del West, Voigt looked rather well-suited to her attire. Beyond the costume, however, the Minnie of Puccini's Wild West is a far cry from the role of Annie. Voigt was free in Puccini's opera to unleash the glory of her highly trained and refined instrument, whereas in Annie, Voigt tried to modulate the voice away from the polish of open vowels in favor of a vernacular delivery that stresses diphthongs and, above all, clarity of speech. And I'm not sure the change in style comes to her all that natur'lly.
Try as she might, Voigt could hide neither the radiance of her trained voice nor the maturity of her delivery. The quality of her vocal timbre weaved in and out of the vernacular, so much so that at times I wondered if I were watching Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. It's not that this sounded bad, mind you, it's just that this novel delivery of hers takes some, well, gittin' used to.
Like it or not, this is Deborah Voigt's Annie — not Ethel Merman's, not Bernadette Peters's, not Reba McEntire's. And judged from this perspective, Voigt shaped an entirely satisfying character that is wholly her own, one that justified the enthusiastic shouts of approval at curtain call from a clearly appreciative audience.
In her pre-performance welcome to the sold-out crowd, Glimmerglass Festival Artistic and General Director Francesca Zambello welcomed several members of Irving Berlin's family in attendance, and reiterated her earlier pledge to produce a classic American music theater production each season under her tenure. This year's promised musical is based upon the 1966 revival of the original 1946 production of Annie Get Your Gun that starred Ethel Merman and Ray Middleton, and which enjoyed a record 1,147 performances on Broadway.
The 1946 original was designed specifically to showcase the incomparable Ethel Merman. The 1966 revival, in which Merman (then 57) reprised the role, eliminated the characters Tommy Keeler and Winnie Tate, along with their two songs, and added a new Berlin song: the contrapuntal duet, An Old Fashioned Wedding.
The story, by Dorothy Fields and her brother Herbert, is a (mostly) fictionalized account of the real-life romance between shooting rivals Annie Oakley and Frank Butler, and centers around Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show — which, buoyed by the talented Annie's Remington rifle, toured some 40 states and Europe. The music was to have been composed by Jerome Kern, but when Kern suffered a fatal stroke, producers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein quickly approached Irving Berlin. The rest, as they say, is history. Berlin penned a never-ending parade of unforgettable tunes in this musical, including Doin' What Comes Natur'lly, The Girl That I Marry, You Can't Get a Man With a Gun, I Got the Sun in the Morning, Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better and the blockbuster There's No Business Like Show Business.
Zambello's production staff captured the authentic look, taste and feel of mid-West life in the 1890s with colorful period cowboy/cowgirl outfits, sets that evoked the laborious train rides through vaudevillian cities throughout the country, and enlarged backdrops comprising Buffalo Bill's publicity posters that had been plastered ubiquitously throughout show's extended tour. The action onstage was in an almost constant state of animation, mimicking the non-stop action of a three-ring circus that pretty much described Buffalo Bill's travelling show.
Rod Gilfry, as the handsome womanizer (and object of Annie's romantic desires) Frank Butler, cast a credible figure onstage. The tall, handsome cowboy looked believable when he warned a bunch of star-struck young ladies to keep their distance (I'm a Bad, Bad Man), and he forged a good chemistry with Voigt that helped keep the drama fresh. While Gilfry never quite conveyed the hurt to his ego that justified his leaving Annie and abandoning Buffalo Bill's show for a competitor, he always remained a sympathetic character who we wished would wind up back in Annie's arms.
Gilfry's pleasant and husky baritone, which sounded somewhat tight early on but grew increasingly stronger as the performance unfolded, suited his part well even though his rather thick vibrato occasionally muddied his words. Gilfry's diction improved markedly by the end of the First Act, beginning with My Defenses Are Down, and throughout the entire Second Act.
In his white moustache and goatee, Jake Gardner as Buffalo Bill Cody looked somewhat like Colonel Sanders. Although it was announced that Gardiner was indisposed for this performance, he delivered the role with spirit, and except for some occasional tightness of voice in There's no Business Like Show Business, and some hoarseness when he pushed his speaking voice just a bit too far, Gardner captured the spirit of his side-show impresario.
As Frank Butler's amusing assistant Dolly Tate, Klea Blackhurst forged a powerful comedic figure with a memorable presence that very nearly upstaged the production's principals. Blackhurst delivered her spoken dialogue with crisply articulated diction, and in a booming voice that towered over the other characters (I can't imagine how she can possibly keep this up over the course of 13 more performances).
Drew Taylor, as the manager of the Wild West Show, Charlie Davenport, talked the talk — glibly promoting the Show during the troupe's stopover in Cincinnati and singing Colonel Buffalo Bill with all due flamboyance and pomposity. Peter Maclin fashioned a pair of zesty characters in his dual roles as local hotel owner, Foster Wilson, and Pawnee Bill, head of the competing Far East Show.
In the politically incorrect role of Chief Sitting Bull, Nick Santa Maria fashioned a hilarious character whose cornball jokes and puns, spoken in stereotypical pigeon English, solicited non-stop (if not guilt-ridden) laughter from the audience throughout the performance.
The attention-grabbing sets and costumes by Court Watson, anchored by a large yellow-orange backdrop illuminating a rising sun and buoyed by the presence of authentic poster art depicting Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, faithfully captured the soul and spirit of the 1890s. Everything was in-character, even the closed curtain seen during the orchestral overture: a blown-up advertisement poster of (the real) Annie Oakley.
Choreographer Eric Sean Fogel's dance routines, which at one point or another involved virtually every character onstage, added color and animation to Zambello's already vibrant staging. Especially eye-catching was the choreography in the "Wild Horse Ceremonial Dance," the Indian ceremony (performed here in-shadow behind a screen) that accompanies Annie's induction into the Sioux tribe as she sings I'm an Indian, Too. At intermission I overheard a print media critic nitpicking the movement of the dancers, but this production cannot fairly be compared with the razor-sharp ensemble-work of Broadway theater, past or present.
Veteran Broadway conductor Kristen Blodgette led a willing Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra in a spirited overture, orchestrated handsomely by Robert Russell Bennett, comprising a medley of the tunes to come. The Glimmerglass Festival Chorus was strong in voice throughout the evening. The Men's Chorus in particular shined during the chorus to Gilfry's My Defenses Are Down, and again in the exciting Wild Horse Ceremonial Dance that followed. The three porters who joined Voigt in the jazzy quartet, Moonshine Lullaby, were outstanding.
There's no shortage of hokey lines in Annie, such as when Dolly Tate threatens the show's promoters with the ultimatum "either she [Annie] goes or I stay," or when the busty Annie tells of her plans to woo back Frank with "I'll wear my low-cut dress and show him a thing or two." Moreover, the expressions are somewhat dated ("Jumpin' geraniums!").
Overall, however, Annie Get Your Gun keeps its freshness remarkably well. And with music such as this, to quote George Gershwin, "Who could ask for anything more?"
By David Abrams
Photo credits: Julieta Cervantes/ The New York Times
Opera Review Zambello's
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Opera Review La fanciulla del West with Voigt at the SF Opera (2010)
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