Musical brilliance shines throughout 'Annie Get Your Gun' at Sundance

Published: Monday, July 29 2013 4:15 p.m. MDT

Coral Chambers, from left, stars as Dolly Tate, Ben Henderson as Frank Butler, Rob Holcombe as Buffalo Bill and MacKenzie Skye Pedersen as Annie Oakley in the Utah Valley University Department of Theatrical Arts/Sundance Summer Theatre production of "Annie Get Your Gun."

Utah Valley University Department of Theatrical Arts/Sundance Summer Theatre

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“ANNIE GET YOUR GUN,” Sundance Resort’s Eccles Outdoor Stage, through Aug. 17, $20-$26, sundanceresort.com or 866-734-4428

“Annie Get Your Gun” relates the tempestuous courtship of two 1880s-era Wild West Show sharpshooters, the strong-willed Annie Oakley and the gruff-on-the-outside-marshmallow-on-the inside Frank Butler. It’s not exactly a plot-heavy show, and there’s little originality with the storytelling.

But there’s one element that has propelled this 1946 musical to its enduring popularity: the rapturous songs written by Irving Berlin. To quote the master composer’s lyrics, I must confess that I like it.

Director Kymberly Mellen and choreographer Nate Balser form an expert team to produce this classic of musical theater at Sundance Resort. They’ve also been given a healthy budget, resulting in magnificent staging. All the elements are in place to make “Annie Get Your Gun” a thoroughly satisfying evening of theater.

Ben Henderson as Frank, the “big, swollen-headed stiff,” opens the show with a soft and wistful rendition of the show’s anthem, “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” joined by the large ensemble. Henderson is a splendid actor and takes charge of the role like a veteran. But sadly, the opening scene’s impact is lessened by so many latecomers shuffling across the graveled aisles to find their seats. (Sundance management this season has wisely opted to drop open seating in the spectacular open-air Eccles Stage, with its sweeping mountain vistas, but ushers haven’t yet realized the importance of holding woefully tardy ticket holders until scene breaks.)

Henderson has a strong voice. There’s been a musical emphasis to make his singing lyrical, and taking an approach to focus on expressive character-based vocals would have better suited him and produced a more captivating musical impact. Yet his delivery is self-assured, and he skillfully maneuvers through his songs.

Mackenzie Skye Pedersen is charming as Annie. With her commanding stage presence, Pedersen quickly shifts the tone to enliven the production with her first step on stage. Her Annie is naively wide-eyed but also defiantly self-confident, revealing the character’s full wit and intelligence underneath. Pedersen has a joyful countenance and backwoods spunk to enjoyably present her big solos, “I Got Lost in His Arms” and “I Got the Sun in the Morning.”

Other cast members are challenged to match the vibrant performances of the winning duo of Pedersen and Henderson. While this will surely change as the run continues, they are tentative and appear insecure in their roles. After opening night, they just need one or two more performances to assimilate the guidance they’ve received to create a cohesive production.

Exceptions are seen in the vivacious presence of Coral Chambers as Frank’s on-stage assistant Dolly Tate and Daniel Fenton Anderson as Foster Wilson, the hotel owner who first proposes a shooting contest between Annie and Frank. There’s also potential in Chase Elwood and Hanna Cutler’s secondary coupling, Tommy and Winnie, with their delightful songs.

Matching the impressive staging and ebullient choreography are the splendid costumes by Becca Bailey Klepko and scenic design by Stephen Purdy, although odd lighting cues are a distraction.

The artistic team behind the Sundance Resort and Utah Valley University partnership of “Annie Get Your Gun” has polished the brilliance of the show’s gorgeous compositions, each filled with humor and love that have stood the test of time. Along with the show-stopping songs named before, “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly,” “The Girl That I Marry/An Old-Fashioned Wedding,” “Who Do You Love, I Hope” and “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)” — I wouldn’t trade ’em for a sack of gold.

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