There is the romance of love, and the romance of show business, and both are at the heart of “Annie Get Your Gun,” part of why Bill Parker is thrilled to direct Potomac Theatre Company’s performance of the Broadway classic. It is a love story of two American icons, in a romantic setting that PTC’s cast and crew can appreciate.
“It is a show within a show. It is Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, portraying the tumultuous romance between Annie Oakley and Frank Butler,” Parker said.
Annie Oakley’s relationship with Frank Butler is set in an era romanticized in American lore. Both achieved fame in the late 1800s as sharpshooters who performed in frontiersman Buffalo Bill Cody’s traveling show, with the likes of Chief Sitting Bull. It was an era of Vaudeville entertainment, when frontiers were still alive in the United States, when Oakley gained worldwide fame for shooting the ashes of the German crown prince’s cigarette.
“She went on horseback and shot flying things in the air,” said Sylvie Langsdorf-Willoughby, a Green Acres third-grader who plays Nellie Oakley. “Another time she shot a card, and shot three holes in it before it fell down.”
Not only is the era romanticized, but Parker said that the life of traveling performers also holds a romantic appeal. For Potomac Theatre Company performers and crew members, this is an easily appreciable notion, especially for those like Nan Muntzig, a founding board member of PTC who will play piano in “Annie Get Your Gun.”
“Their love of show makes them want to come back each day,” Parker said. “Everyone here, onstage and offstage, loves the business of show, and that’s why we do this.”
“ANNIE GET YOUR Gun” debuted on Broadway in 1946, but PTC’s version is based on a revival version that hit Broadway in 1999. A film version released in 1951 starred Betty Hutton, and it won the Academy Award for Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture.
The music is written by Irving Berlin, and Parker believes that it’s Berlin at his finest.
“Irving Berlin made extra effort to do that because he wrote shows that did not,” Parker said. “He saw that shows like ‘Oklahoma’ had stories with songs that supported the story, rather than stories that were built around songs.”
Nikki Arbiter-Murphy stars as Annie Oakley, and she appreciates the musical scope of this play’s songs. “You get a lot of contrast in the music, which is really good,” Arbiter-Murphy said. “It ranges from absolute, downright hick to some songs that are actually jazzy.”
Kris Sanz will direct the 20-member orchestra, most of whose members are students or alums of the University of Maryland School of Music.
“YOU ARE MY G.I. Joes,” Parker told the performers — he wanted all performers and technicians to come together to form the vision he had in mind. By last Thursday, he could see it becoming a reality. “I saw the picture; I saw what I thought this would look like,” Parker said.
Staging for “Annie Get Your Gun” is a work in progress — part of Parker’s vision. He wanted the set to reflect that of a traveling show that rolls into town, sets up shop, then breaks camp and moves on. Staging will be minimal in the early scenes and will grow more elaborate as the tent is raised and “showtime” nears. Even at its height, though, the backs of “set pieces” are visible. Parker wants viewers to imagine a train docked behind the Blair Center, ready to whisk everything away to the next stop in Schenectady, N.Y.
“The idea is that it can easily be packed away,” Parker said.
At the Blair Center scene shop, set designer Roger McDonald and set construction supervisor Mack Grant can prepare the “traveling show” set. It is a sign of the times for Potomac Theatre Company, now in its 17th season. PTC crews once built sets in the barn of founding member Elie Pisarra-Cain.
Since the Blair Family Center for the Arts opened in 2002, it has been home to all of Potomac Theatre Company’s performances. Previously, PTC performed in the Bullis cafeteria.
“With a real stage, you have wings and wing space,” Muntzing said. “[Previously] we went into the bathrooms or the kitchen.”
CHILDREN PERFORMING in “Annie Get Your Gun” have only experienced the Blair Center era for Potomac Theatre Company. They have high expectations for themselves and their fellow performers, and think the play will hold a broad appeal.
“I think some of my friends would like it because it involves guns,” said Jack Copeland, a Green Acres Elementary third-grader who plays Jake Oakley.
“There’s a lot of good songs for belters,” said Emma Leiken, a sixth-grader from McLean, Va., performing as Jessie Oakley.
As Annie Oakley, Arbiter-Murphy expects the play’s appeal will be even more universal. “It’s a play for everybody,” she said, “something that the whole family can come to see and enjoy.”