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Pretty Much Shot 

In the Civic’s Gun, cardboard characters shoot off pleasant songs. Shouldn’t musicals aim higher?

click to enlarge Annie (Tami Knoell, left) says, "Get me out of this plot so I can sing." - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Annie (Tami Knoell, left) says, "Get me out of this plot so I can sing."

Like a Lawrence Welk Show episode attempting to update itself (more tolerance! more gender equity!), the modernized version of the 64-year-old codger-musical Annie Get Your Gun tries hard to avoid being unhip.

Despite Peter Stone’s 1999 revision, most of the material in between the famous Irving Berlin songs amounts to patter, filler, and a poor excuse for a plot filled with adults acting like emotionally stunted children. It’s all about as authentic as the white guys in ponytails of this production, passing themselves off as Indians.

Nearly all the good material that shoots out of this particular Gun (at the Civic through June 20) derives from the work of singing actors, working hard within the confines of a given song to provide something approaching genuine emotion. Quite often, they succeed. A fine opening sequence has Patrick McHenry- Kroetch, as sharpshooter Frank Butler, entering from the audience and singing a cappella, waxing nostalgic about this Business called Show, which really is unlike any other. We’re a long way from Ethel Merman here, folks, and McHenry-Kroetch’s rich baritone projects genuine devotion to the art of keeping other people entertained.

As Annie Oakley, curly-haired Tami Knoell also has exceptional solo moments. Separated from Frank late in the show, she has a lovely recollection of how “I got lost in his arms/ And I had to stay,” soon followed by Annie’s praise of simple living, “I Got the Sun in the Morning.”

Director Yvonne A.K. Johnson’s production is at its best when it isolates its two stars in duets. It’s a nice touch, for example, to have McHenry-Kroetch’s speculations about “The Girl That I Marry” to be answered, in the song’s second half, by Knoell’s love-longing. And both singers shine in their duet about other people falling in love, “They Say It’s Wonderful.” Johnson engineers a lovely reunion for the once-estranged lovers, followed by their counter-singing dispute over what properly constitutes “An Old-Fashioned Wedding.”

Best of all was the variety and inventiveness of “Anything You Can Do,” with chorus after chorus topping the previous one. By then, Annie and Frank had started to approximate actual human beings. Too bad it’s at the end of the show.

Technical elements are strong, with Peter Hardie’s sets ranging from circus tents to fancy ballrooms to the deck of a low-rent steamer floating in New York Harbor on a starry night. And a team led by Jan Wanless provides consistently stunning costumes. As Dolly Tate, Frank’s desperate-snooty assistant, Ryan Patterson practically gets to engage in a one-woman fashion show — at nearly every entrance, she has on some new, just-fancy-enough-to-feel-exaggerated gown. As Buffalo Bill, Doug Dawson almost gets lost behind his leather fringes and giant mustachios.

But this Annie, both in plan and execution, has numerous weaknesses. Frank’s vain, for example, and Annie’s a hick. And as far as characterization goes, that’s it. The idea that other people have points of view dawns slowly on this cornpone couple.

The choreography, credited to a three-person team, relies too much on thumbs hooked in pockets and the heel-tap shuffle. (The surprising Annie-flips at the end of “I Got the Sun,” though, were a welcome departure.)

The first reprise of “No Business Like Show Business” — meant to demonstrate onstage energy — lacked it. Berlin’s lyrics tend to make already-established assertions about characters — and then repeat them (even if they are set to memorable melodies). But then Annie is not the place to go for insights about the battle of the sexes. Herbert and Dorothy Fields’ book may have raised eyebrows back in the day, but the revelation that sexism is wrongheaded leads mostly to yawns today. Which would be OK, if the show didn’t also dumb-down its main couple to the level of middle-school puppy lovers.

The path of their love is not a smooth one. For no good reason, a scene in a Pullman car jerks from topic to topic: Annie’s in love, Buffalo Bill’s show has a problem, then the kids want to hear a lullaby. An expendable subplot throws in tap routines for the secondary couple — vaudeville displays with zero character interest and just meant to fill time, apparently. Meanwhile, Frank is still full of himself, Annie’s still from the backwoods, and the fact that their romance goes awry at the end of Act One registers … not much at all, really.

To top it off, this production’s filled with fake rifle-firing, balloon-popping and wise-cracking that just don’t work, mostly because they called attention to stage logistics instead of seamlessly creating an effect. A lot of musicals have one or two memorable songs; Annie Get Your Gun has a half-dozen at least. But they’re in the service of a hokey story centered on cardboard characters struggling to learn the simplest lessons.

The Civic’s production succeeds in stringing together several entertaining music-and-dance numbers. But as with Mr. Welk’s show, there’s little through-line. Just wunnerful, wunnerful, smiling, vacant faces.

Annie Get Your Gun celebrates show business at the Civic, 1020 N. Howard St., through June 20 on Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2 pm. (No show on May 30.) Tickets: $27; $25, seniors; $18, students; $9, student rush. Visit spokanecivictheatre.com or call 325-2507.

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