Diversion 2.0

The answer might be, not being Annie Get Your Gun, an object lesson in how to unmake a Broadway musical. In 1946, Irving Berlin and the Fields siblings carpentered up a pleasant, workable set of simple, square-cut elements to fit the simple, square-cut personality of Ethel Merman. Instead of testing Bernadette Peters's mettle against these elements, the new production has unwisely dismantled, muted, and fussed with them, creating an evening that doesn't showcase Peters's spunkily endearing personality and throws Annie Get Your Gundown the drain. Old-style musicals were simple and stupid; the new style kills the simplicity and keeps the stupidity.

Three songs have been cut, the rousing "Colonel Buffalo Bill" and "I'm an Indian Too" because they say politically unacceptable things about Native Americans, and "I'm a Bad, Bad Man," presumably because it demeans women. In their place we get more dialogue— what musical needs more dialogue?— by that guarantor of pointless verbosity, Peter Stone. And what is the new dialogue? Anti-Indian bigotry from a caricature spinster, while the Fields's original use of Sitting Bull as a stereotype ugh-how wisecracker is left intact. All that's been suppressed, besides Berlin's tunes, is a painful truth: Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show displayed Indians attacking settlers and being routed by the U.S. cavalry. It seems late to rewrite that particular piece of data, especially now that gambling casinos are giving the country back to the Indians, so that the final joke is on the rest of us. Maybe when the Pequots buy back Manhattan, they can restore authenticity to Annieby having the Weisslers scalped onstage at every performance. Even the critics would pay to see it.

The members of Hudson Shad in Band in Berlin: 1920s multiculti remastered
Carol Rosegg
The members of Hudson Shad in Band in Berlin: 1920s multiculti remastered

Details

Band in Berlin
By Susan Feldman
Helen Hayes Theatre
Broadway and 44th Street
239-6200

Annie Get Your Gun
By Herbert and Dorothy Fields as revised by Peter Stone
Songs by Irving Berlin
Marquis Theatre
Broadway and 45th Street
307-4100

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Graciela Daniele's production makes what's left of Annieseem oddly drab and unlively. Her approach is wistful to the point of elegy: it starts with explanatory narration, a tent going up— did Daniele think she was doing Carnival?— and "There's No Business Like Show Business" sung softly. Tony Walton's pallid sets seem even paler under Beverly Emmons's stark lighting; even William Ivey Long's graceful costumes lean toward pastels, with Peters getting no less than three lavender-hued gowns. Her acting's watercolorish, too; she makes Annie a vulnerable kitten, much readier to whimper and turn aside than to sass back. Give Tom Wopat's Frank Butler a limp and some puppets, and it would be Carnival. Wopat, who moves through the remaining shards of his role with easy charm and big-toned vocal warmth, deserves better. In the few moments when he and Peters face off, or one of them tackles a Berlin song, without the production's incessant pointless fiddling, you see the musical Annie Get Your Gunonce was, and might be again if they'd let it.

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