If the pleasant overture to Irving Berlin’s “Annie Get Your Gun” was a bit muffled from the fine onstage orchestra behind the curtain of the Houston Hobby Center’s elegant Zilkha Hall, there was nothing muffled about the stunning and powerful a cappella solo of “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” delivered by Luther Chakurian, stepping out alone before that curtain in the role of Charlie Davenport, manager of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. The thrilling number (conductor, Paula Smith) continues to accelerate with the lusty reprise of Masquerade guest performer, John Gremillion, in the role of Frank Butler. Then, as though in a finale from some grand MGM Technicolor musical, the entire cast explodes on stage to bring the excitement of Berlin’s lyric fully to life with joyous ensemble singing and the lighthearted choreography of Laura Gray. Where do we go from here? Let us just say we are off on a very pleasant journey that is exceedingly well crafted by Masquerade founder and artistic director, Phillip Duggins.
The simple story relates the tale of crack-shot country gal, Annie Oakley, and her on again, off again, romance with western show sharpshooter, Butler, as they compete for marksmanship top honors . The action plays out on a minimal set (designer, David Higginbotham) that works quite well in keeping the focus on the exceptional singing and dancing, while suggesting here a fairgrounds tent or Pullman Car, and there a cattle boat or ballroom. All the while, the costume designs of Stephanie Bradow and Beth Hempen add to the glow of a production that features fine lighting from Russell Freeman. Another element lighting up the stage is luminous Rebekah Dahl in the lead role of Annie. With comic flair, fine voice, and a touching performance, she quickly proves her star billing in this production is very much deserved. She seems to be (as Berlin’s lyric suggests), “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly.” Her pairing with Mr. Gremillion is a perfect match, and his fine stage voice, appealing manner, and rugged good looks combine to make him a winner in such numbers as his very visual, “The Girl That I Marry.” Dahl follows with a sparkling, “You Can’t Get a Man With A Gun,” and her fine voice is on full view as she dramatically commands the stage alone.
With powerful voice and fine stage presence, Mr. Higginbotham gives us a Buffalo Bill that is a real showman. Meanwhile, the secondary romance and fine singing of Tommy (Braden Hunt) and Winnie (Miss Gray) nicely frames some sweet, but lesser-known Berlin tunes like “I’ll Share It All With You,” and a “Who Do You Love, I Hope?” that featured an impressive dance routine with only one near slip-up. And not withstanding some Opening Night microphone glitches, a further treat was Dahl’s fine voice (minus all shtick and shenanigans) in the delightful “Moonshine Lullaby,” joined by Annie’s young siblings (Kacy Smith, Jacqueline Wells, Ben Estus, Sanders Keller), along with very fine back-up singers. And for pure vocal gold, the show’s magical moment is the musically divine duet of “They Say It’s Wonderful” from Frank and Annie.
Gremillion’s gentle “My Defenses Are Down” was only slightly marred by excess comic “business” from the Cowboys, and a brief musical tempo conflict. And speaking of cowboys, there were some fine Indians as well, with Russell Freeman as Pawnee Bill and amusing Evan Tessier as Sitting Bull. Miss Hempen added more comic touches as the conniving Dolly seeking Frank’s affections.
With “I Got Lost in His Arms,” Dahl wraps her own musical arms around the audience while doing a fantasy dance turn with her imagined Frank. In the glamorous ballroom scene, her winning “I Got the Sun in the Mornin’” had a bit too much forced comedy for this viewer, but the ensemble sang superbly and danced a real hoedown. Then Dahl proved herself again with an amazingly glib, tongue twisting, and sassy duet of “Anything You Can Do,” fending off Gremillion’s bluff and bluster as Frank. But all ends happily, and a closing line in the show says: “They lived scrappily ever after!” So may it be with this scrappy and superb ensemble of Masquerade Players!
Annie continues at Zilkha Hall through November 26th. For tickets or information visit the website at www.thehobbycenter.org or call 713-315-2525.