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Civic Theatre strives for authenticity in ‘Annie Get Your Gun’

Most Broadway musicals don’t have firearms in the plot, much less in the title. Yet “Annie Get Your Gun” involves so many blazing barrels that director Yvonne A.K. Johnson decided she didn’t want her Spokane Civic Theatre cast looking like a bunch of greenhorns.

So she took them to several shooting ranges, put some real guns in their hands and told ‘em to blast away. The idea was to give the actors an idea of how real guns are handled, not just prop guns.

In fact, the actors will be handling genuine guns (without the live ammo, of course) in the Civic’s revival of this Irving Berlin classic.

“We have some 1894 Winchesters,” said Johnson. “One of Annie’s guns is 100 years old. We’ll have $10,000 worth of guns on the stage.”

The Civic’s first production of “Annie Get Your Gun” since 1981 features 33 cast members, eight musicians in the orchestra pit and at least another dozen people handling lights, props and costumes.

And what costumes. Johnson said there are 1,200 separate costume pieces. That’s a lot of fringed buckskin.

“We are replicating Annie Oakley’s old costume pieces,” said Johnson. “She built all of her own costumes, you know.”

She was referring to Oakley’s costumes from her days in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show days. “Annie Get Your Gun” is about the gun-totin’ courtship between the young Annie and sharp-shooter Frank Butler, and their rise to fame in Buffalo Bill’s show.

The songs are by Irving Berlin, and many are instantly recognizable standards.

“ ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’ is one of the biggest songs in musical theater,” said Johnson. “That song opens the show, and is reprised twice.”

The show also includes “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better),” “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun,” “They Say It’s Wonderful” and “I Got the Sun in the Morning.”

The original 1946 Broadway production was a long-running smash with Ethel Merman as Annie. Yet the show didn’t age well into the 1960s and 1970s – it was full of jokes about Indians and women.

In 1999, the script was rewritten and the jokes polished up for modern sensibilities. The role of Sitting Bull, in particular, was altered so that he was no longer the butt of the jokes – he was the conveyor of the jokes. Some songs were cut entirely.

With Bernadette Peters in the lead role, this revival was a huge hit and ran almost as long as the original. Critics agreed that the entire show had been vastly improved.

The Civic is doing that 1999 revival version.

Tami Knoell, who recently played Maria in “The Sound of Music” and Aldonza/Dulcinea in “Man of La Mancha,” is playing Annie Oakley.

Johnson said this is “the perfect time and place” for her to take on this demanding star vehicle. It requires an exceptional amount of stamina.

Patrick McHenry-Kroetch, one of the Civic’s top leading men, plays Frank Butler. Doug Dawson plays Buffalo Bill, Paul Villabrille plays Chief Sitting Bull and Gary Pierce plays Charlie Davenport.

By the way, when the cast went to those shooting ranges? Annie Oakley outshot Frank Butler, just as the real Annie did all of those years ago.