Something strange and rather delightful has happened to the Broadway revival of “Annie Get Your Gun.” Nearly two years after opening to mixed critical responses that included a fair amount of gunfire, the darn thing has gotten a heap better! The major reason is plain to see: It’s the red-haired, bright-eyed ball of fire center-stage: Country singer Reba McEntire, having the time of her life — and giving adoring audiences theirs — in her Broadway debut as the sharp-shootin’ Annie Oakley.
Broadway baby Bernadette Peters won a Tony for her performance as Annie two seasons back, but it was hardly a snug fit. She sang the role to perfection, but was unconvincing as a rough-edged, backwoods wildcat. The Sondheim veteran seemed ill at ease — even uninterested — in the workings of the show’s cornpone book and the rowdy trappings of Graciele Daniele’s production; she was like a china shop plopped down among a stage full of bulls.
McEntire, by contrast, grabs the bull by the horns, as it were, and jumps right on. Countrified phrases like “if’n” and “that’s a load o’ hogwash” come naturally to this Oklahoma native, and she pops them out with a blazing, natural gusto that strips the varnish of hokum right off.
McEntire isn’t afraid to play the buffoon, and she performs with a freewheeling physicality that brings to mind other big-eyed comediennes of TV’s Golden Era: Imogene Coca, Lucille Ball or Carol Burnett. She walks with a funny, horsy lope, and her swooning double-take at the first sight of the manly Frank Butler is priceless.
Indeed, her adoration of Brent Barrett’s sweetly preening — and beautifully sung — Frank is as oddly touching as it is funny. When she gets near him, her blue eyes sparkle with dazed adoration, her head bobs forward, her wagging tongue threatens to pop out of her big, curly grin and lick his cheek. She’s like a big lovesick puppy.
McEntire’s energy and enthusiasm seem to shed a new glow on the whole production. It feels brighter, snappier and less encumbered by its questionable show-within-a-show framing device. The central turntable that accommodates most of the action still feels cramping, and some of the entr’acte gimmicks — particularly a ring dancer who seems to have wandered in from “Pippin” — still give pause, but even the wooden PC jokes about Larry Storch’s Sitting Bill seem to go down easier now. Conrad John Schuck is also a fine addition as Buffalo Bill.
And of course the particular qualities of McEntire’s lovely singing bring something fresh and exciting to Irving Berlin’s score. The feathery tremolo that gives a plaintive quality to country singing brings yet another authentic note to her characterization and adds a layer of moist but not sappy emotion to the ballads “Lost in His Arms” and “They Say It’s Wonderful.” The comic songs have a neat punch, too.
Top to bottom — gawky dancing included — it’s an adorable performance, and should give a big shot of B.O. life to a revival that’s now looking fresher than it did on the day it opened.