Marilu Henner’s very appealing Annie Oakley will pleasantly surprise presenters who campaigned hard but unsuccessfully for the starry sass of Bernadette Peters’ original gun-totin’ hillbilly. With Rex Smith’s Frank Butler substituting youth and exuberance for Tom Wopat’s laid-back drawl, the Weisslers’ engaging new pair of toppers have enough energy and talent to make this touring “Annie” one of the bigger grossers of the new road season. The energy of the talent and the freshness of Jeff Calhoun’s direction overcomes the diminishment of Tony Walton’s tented setting, here a pale shadow of the original.
Calhoun, who is given full directing and choreography credit for the tour (Graciele Daniele helmed the Broadway original), has trimmed the show considerably. Two numbers are excised entirely and they are not missed. Instead of act two opener “The European Tour” (a dull affair), the show now cuts straight to the effective “Lost in His Arms.” Gone from the first act is the juvenile number “I’ll Share It all With You,” cute but cloying.
The result is about 15 minutes shaved off the running time and a show with a rather more contemporary and personal structure, although the Tommy/Winny and Charlie/Dolly subplots command so much less attention here that they seem like afterthoughts in the last five minutes of the show. Still, hinterlanders will be showing up to see Annie and Frank battle it out in a show well matched to cities like Dallas (especially given the current popular upswing of Texas family values). Folks will likely be happy with their purchase.
As she proved in “Chicago,” Henner is an accomplished hoofer, and Calhoun makes expanded use of her physical chops, especially in the second act. More important, though, Henner manages to turn Oakley into a character with a palpable and empathetic emotional arc. There’s also a very pleasing strength to her work — this Annie’s dedication to her skill comes through more strongly than her love for Frank, which is a nice reversal of the way the role is often played. Henner is unafraid to turn Annie into a genuine lout in the early stages of the show, which makes her growth all the more interesting.
Both Henner and the charming Smith give the music a more contemporary, pop veneer than their Broadway counterparts, but the upside of that approach is more naturalistic characterizations. And since this un-p.c. show needs all the help it can muster in that regard, the tour feels fresher and less strained than this show did in its original incarnation.
There are no obvious weak links in the uniformly strong supporting cast — which is slightly smaller and younger than the Broadway company but still more than adequate. Larry Storch is especially funny as Sitting Bull — he avoids the potential stereotyping by creating a winking character who is the classic Broadway noble savage. The choice frees the audience to laugh at the gags.
As is their custom, the Weisslers have obviously concentrated on keeping the physical production easy to move and inexpensive. Presenters should be wary of billing this show on its scenic merits — it is probably now closer to “Chicago” than its Broadway sibling. In Dallas, at least, the orchestra was thinner than Irving Berlin deserves at this level. The choreography also suffers from a lack of stage depth. The show was using only a small portion of the Music Fair’s huge stage.
Still, one could reasonably argue that Walton’s original set was so expansive that it messed up Peter Stone’s frame for the show, which depended on the notion that Buffalo Bill was staging the whole thing himself. With this production’s limited backdrops and set pieces — and honest, big-hearted performances — no such suspension of disbelief is required.