Sunday, March 28, 2010


How do you take an old fashioned musical comedy from another era, and make it relevant and meaningful for a new generation? This is the challenge that a show like "Annie Get Your Gun" presents for today's theatre artists. In 1946, when this piece was first produced, it was not only created for the Broadway audiences of its time, it was also created by artists who came out of a tradition completely different from ours.
People like Ethel Merman and Irving Berlin came from a live theatre steeped in the traditions of vaudeville: where big personalities, specialty talents and broad performance styles were the accepted norm. The books of shows like "Annie Get Your Gun" were frequently light on character development and emotional truth, and heavy on the one liners and preposterous plot lines. These pieces were also designed to appeal to a generation of older theatre goers who remembered with nostalgia the vaudeville pleasures of an earlier time; so they were even more stylized and, by our standards, 'cornier' than the more realistic dramas that populated the theatre of that era. All one has to do is watch Betty Hutton's brassy, over-the-top performance as Annie Oakley in the MGM film to realize how much styles have changed.

And one must also think of the time in which "Annie Get Your Gun" was written. World War II had been fought and won, and our culture was going through profound changes as America struggled to adjust to the new world it faced. It was a time of optimism and a return to the traditional roles expected of men and women in our country. When the men were off at war, women had to take on more 'masculine' roles: pursuing new careers, working hands on in industries hitherto unknown to women, and providing a stronger, more forceful foundation for a country in crisis.
Even the shoulder pads that were popular in womens' fashions spoke to the more masculine qualities expected of the gentler sex. And so when we look at a story like the romance between Annie Oakley and Frank Butler in that context, we see a strong, independent woman who can shoot a rifle as well as any guy, in conflict with her desire to be a soft, desirable woman for her man. Annie's famous lament, "You Can't Get a Man With a Gun," speaks not only to the plight of a pistol packin' frontier gal, but also to the woman who worked in the munitions factory who now had to provide a soft, supportive housewife for her returning soldier husband. It is not surprising that in the original storyline for the musical, Annie throws the final shootout between her and Frank in order to play the feminine role and give him his masculine authority, facilitating that walk into the sunset in matrimonial bliss. For women of our time, this kind of sublimation would be unthinkable, but for an era in which the men had made the ultimate sacrifice in a foreign war, it was considered proper that the woman, strong as she may be, should step aside and take her place as the supportive wife and mother.

Look also at the treatment of Native Americans in the original script of this show. Racial sensitivity and political correctness were not a part of the cultural attitudes toward minorities in this era. Consequently the Native American characters in the show were inarticulate, thinly drawn stereotypes, and when Annie was adopted as a daughter by Chief Sitting Bull in the story, she launched into a comic number called "I'm an Indian Too." In its time, this big colorful production number would have been hugely entertaining, but for our time, lyrics like

Some Indian summer day
Without a care
I may run away
With Big Chief Son-of-a-Bear

truly smack of racial insensitivity.
Consequently, when the show was being reworked by Pulitzer prize winning author Peter Stone for the 1999 Broadway revival, this number was removed from the piece. While some may miss this classic Irving Berlin tune, the potential offense that may be given to Native Americans in our time is something that can't be taken lightly. In this revised version of the script, Chief Sitting Bull and the other American Indian characters have a dignified presence more palatable to today's audiences.

Our talented director, Rob Ruggiero, has become identified with providing productions of traditional musicals with an emotional depth and human texture more suited to our modern sensibilities. He focuses on story, and on the relationships between the characters; the songs and dances come from the narrative threads of the story and from the characters' need to communicate and connect with each other. This approach challenges us as performers to simultaneously honor the traditions from which "Annie Get Your Gun" was born, while infusing the piece with a humanity and sense of truth that will allow our 21st century audience to identify with the characters and the tale we are telling. My character of Charlie speaks in one liners and comic zingers, like an old borscht belt comedian. It's my task to make this wisecracker a fully fleshed out human being. As you can imagine, our director must have a steady hand and be continually aware of where the comedy and the old fashioned musical styles of the piece serve the play and where they need to be given texture, simplicity and realism for our modern day tastes. Rob is supremely skilled at this task, bringing a highly detailed eye and a sophisticated aesthetic to the table. What the Goodspeed audience will get in "Annie Get Your Gun" will be a rich, entertaining experience that simultaneously brings to life the great old fashioned pleasures of this classic piece, and a human story of a man and a woman finding each other, and themselves, against a colorful crazy quilt of Americana steeped in history. So... does Annie still throw that final shooting match to give Frank the upper hand? Or does she take a stand for her own abilities in a way that a 21st century woman can relate to? You'll have to catch a performance at Goodspeed to find out!

Monday, March 22, 2010


Goodspeed Opera House is a renowned Tony Award winning theatre, and the place where some really great American musicals, like "Annie", had their genesis. It is also dedicated to preserving and rediscovering the rich heritage of musical theatre. So of course, I have long wanted to work here. What I hadn't realized was how charmingly tiny and jewel-like the theatre is. With an extremely small stage, no fly rigging, and a house of around 350 seats, it must take enormous ingenuity and creativity to present the lush, beautifully mounted productions the company is famous for. In addition to the modest size of the theatre, it is also located in a quaint but rather removed part of central Connecticut. The nearest shopping is a half hour's drive away and with the exception of a handful of restaurants, a liquor store, a post office and a public library, Goodspeed is the only reason to visit little East Haddam.

I joined a handful of performers on the vans that the company provided to shuttle us, on a windy, rainy day from midtown Manhattan to East Haddam. We were all taken to our accommodations, mostly in charming, well worn old houses within walking distance of the opera house. In the evening the theatre's volunteer guild treated all of us to a welcome dinner, served buffet style in a room below stairs at the venue. It was a lively gathering, sort of like a boisterous first night at summer camp, and we were able to mingle and introduce ourselves. On Tuesday, the weather cleared, the sun came out, and we got a first touch of Spring for our first rehearsal day. The cast, crew, and staff of the theatre gathered in the rehearsal hall and we did our first day introductions, received information from company management, and met our director, Rob Ruggiero, who gave us a brief overview of the concept of his production and a viewing of the set and costume designs. Rob approaches plays and musicals with the same commitment to authenticity, truth, and a desire to tell the story in a human way that audiences can relate to. To that end, "Annie Get Your Gun" will feature sets inspired by the weathered big top tents and colorful antique posters of the original Buffalo Bill's Wild West. The costumes promise to be rich and sumptuous, providing a textured and dazzling glimpse of the 1880's. It's always exciting to come together on that first day and get a look at the creative journey that lies ahead.

My first rehearsal week was fairly light. Our talented choreographer, Noah Racey, used his time to tackle the more intricate and demanding dance numbers with our amazing ensemble of dancers, and there were calls for learning music, table sessions to discuss character and story with our director, and a really exciting first read/sing through with the full cast toward the end of the week, attended by designers, Goodspeed producers, and invited guests. Our generous sponsors treated the entire company to a sumptuous meal at the elegant Gelston House, adjacent to the theatre, and we all felt very special indeed. The energy here is very positive, enthusiastic and nurturing.

My character, Charlie Davenport, seems to be modeled after the real life general manager and owner of Buffalo Bill's Wild West, Nate Salsbury.
I did some on line research this week during my free time and discovered that he was quite a guy: an actor, singer, director, writer, and producer of vaudeville and large scale extravaganzas. He was a Civil War vet who survived the brutal Confederate prison camp of Andersonville, he singlehandedly turned Buffalo Bill's operation into a money making venture, and his accomplishments as an impresario inspired none other than the great showman Flo Ziegfeld. In "Annie Get Your Gun" Charlie represents the show biz side of things and as such, he is more slick and citified than the Western characters in the story; always wheeling and dealing, and full of one liners and funny punchlines. I worked with our dialect expert this week on creating an authentic Brooklyn accent for Charlie, thus providing further contrast. I also had a preliminary costume fitting which helped to shape even more of Mr. Davenport's snappy image. Sharp suits, elaborate vests, bowler hats, and watch chains will give him that city slicker vibe, as well as a pair of 19th century wire rimmed spectacles. I am growing a mustache for the role and hopefully, by our first performance, it will have grown enough for me to wax it up and give it that barbershop quartet style! Character work has always been one of the great joys of acting for me, so this guy will be fun to inhabit for the next few months.

Spring has finally arrived and the weather here in the charming Connecticut River Valley has been spectacular, giving everyone an infusion of hopefulness and good cheer to start our musical adventure with. The crocuses and jonquils are starting to bloom and the air is fresh and warm. I will be blogging weekly as we roll along here, and hope to include rehearsal photos, profiles of our talented cast and creative team, and a little bit of travelogue-ing about this charming part of Connecticut. Meantime, please become a follower of my blog here on, and if you are on Facebook, I encourage you to join my fan page as well as the Goodspeed Musicals fan page for all kinds of fun updates on "Annie Get Your Gun." Happy Spring!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


MARCH 9, 2010

Goodspeed Musicals announced today the complete cast of "Annie Get Your Gun." Kevin Earley will play Frank Butler opposite Jenn Gambatese as Annie Oakley April 16-June 27 at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT.

Gambatese, of Broadway's "Tarzan and All Shook Up, was previously announced. Goodspeed producer Michael P. Price revealed the entire cast on March 9. Opening night is May 12.

Earley, who'll play the baritone show rival/love interest to Annie, appeared in Broadway's "A Tale of Two Cities", "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and "Les Misérables."

Buffalo Bill Cody will be played by David McDonald (Broadway's "Bye, Bye, Birdie"; "Mamma Mia!"; "Side Show"; and "Les Misérables"); Dolly Tate will be played by Rebecca Watson (Goodspeed's "1776" and "Me & My Girl"); Tommy Keeler will be played by Andrew Cao; Chelsea Morgan Stock (Broadway's "The Little Mermaid") will play Winnie Tate; yours truly will play Charlie Davenport; Michael Nichols (Broadway's "November" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest") will play Chief Sitting Bull.

The ensemble will include Brandon Andrus, Sean Coughlin, Orville Mendoza, Pilar Millhollen, Bill Nabel, Con O'Shea-Creal, Natalie Ryder, Dorothy Stanley, Molly Tynes, Amos Wolff and Aaron Young. The swings will be Noah Aberlin, Hartleigh Buwick and Jake Poulios.

The creative team features choreographer Noah Racey, scenic designer Michael Schweikardt, costume designer Alejo Vietti, lighting designer John Lasiter, music director Michael O'Flaherty, assistant music director William J. Thomas and orchestrator Dan DeLange.

I go into rehearsal on March 16, and am very excited to be a part of this talented group!