For eons, women have played the weaker sex so men could feel stronger, but that ploy never sat well with Annie Oakley (Katie Howe), a backwoods sharpshooter and inspiration for the 1946 musical Annie Get Your Gun. The show's main character, who is based on a performer in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, longs for attention from her competitor, Frank Butler (Jason Dowies), but cannot bring herself to let him win. Throughout the musical, recently presented by Summer Lyric Theatre at Tulane University, Annie and Frank vie for the title of world's best sharpshooter, a contest that quickly becomes an obstacle to their relationship.
"When I'm with a pistol, I sparkle like a crystal / Yes, I shine like the morning sun. But I lose all my luster, when with a bronco buster / Oh, you can't get a man with a gun," Howe sings.
Sharpshooting aside, Annie Get Your Gun, directed by Diane Lala, is an old-fashioned romance laced with tenderness and punctuated with thigh-slapping, old-school humor. Howe and Dowles gave rootin'-tootin' performances as the competitive yet love-struck couple who toured the world and amazed audiences with their marksmanship. Supporting performances by Emily Bagwill as Winnie Tate and Gray Randolph as Tommy Keeler, a teenage couple, added sweet simplicity. Randy Clement, a Burl Ives lookalike, was the supportive show manager Buffalo Bill, and Michael J. Smith played the Sioux Chief Sitting Bull, who gave romantic advice to Annie: Lose the contest.
Adding to the lighthearted story, Irving Berlin's incomparable score was performed by musicians from the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, culminating in an evening of musical bliss. Berlin's lyrics whimsically capture Annie's charming naivete in classics including "You Can't Get a Man with a Gun" and "Anything You Can Do," but his melodies also include mellifluous love ballads, such as "They Say It's Wonderful" and "I Got Lost in His Arms."
Oakley tries to change her tomboy looks to please Butler, but lacking formal schooling and social graces, she believes she must shine in the spotlight. Butler concludes she is "too smart for me."
The Broadway role of Oakley was conceived for the enormous voice and personality of Ethel Merman, who always will be remembered for her rendition of the blockbuster "There's No Business Like Show Business." Howe brought her charismatic femininity to the role, however, doing justice to Berlin's enchanting music.
Annie Oakley's lifetime (1860-1926) roughly coincided with the women's suffrage movement. Women were granted the right to vote in 1920, six years before her death. The script has been revised over the decades to be more contemporary in its portrayal of women and Native Americans.
In 1967, Annie Get Your Gun was the first production of Tulane's Summer Lyric Theatre, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. After all these years, the musical is wonderfully corny and sure as shootin' fun.