David Craig Starkey, artistic director of the Asheville Lyric Opera, admits that the historical Annie Oakley was probably much simpler and less glamorous than her stage portrayal — but since Annie Get Your Gun was written for Ethel Merman, the role is forever imbued with that actress’s flamboyant presence.
Although the musical is loosely based on the true story of “little sureshot” Annie Oakley, the writers took plenty of artistic license with the feisty redhead’s life. And since the play was first produced in 1946, Annie has had a history of being played by striking, strong-willed women.
The upcoming local production is no exception. Broadway veteran Liz Aiello lived in New York for 12 years before moving to Mars Hill several years ago. Aiello, who has performed in many Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre plays — including last summer’s Lost Highway and Frankie — is looking forward to following Ethel Merman, Cheryl Ladd, Reba McIntyre and Bernadette Peters in the lead role.
“I make a habit of playing strong women,” Aiello says. “I really enjoy the challenge.” (During her first encounter with shooting ace Frank Butler, the stage directions call for Annie to drop her mouth open in exaggerated adoration. At a recent rehearsal, though, Aiello insisted, “I am not doing that.” For this production, at least, Frank will have to be satisfied with a loving look.)
After she wins a shootout with him, Frank’s interest is piqued, and he hires Annie as his assistant in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. But when she upstages him, his ego is ruffled, and he leaves in a huff to join a rival show.
Fortunately for the audience, Annie’s not willing to admit defeat, so, with her rifle on her hip, she sets out to win her man.
Neither of the leads (another Broadway veteran, Ben Starr Coates, plays Butler) has performed in Annie before, but they knew the songs and were eager to do the show.
“Annie is one of those shows that everybody knows the songs to, but nobody knows where they came from,” asserts Starkey. (The tune folks will best remember is “No Business Like Show Business” — the American theater’s unofficial theme song.)
Asheville Lyric Opera and the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre, two respected companies on the local theater scene, are teaming up for the first time to offer this lively musical. Starkey, a lanky, enthusiastic man who’s both acting in and producing the show, talks excitedly about the collaboration.
“What we’re doing is combining the wisdom of an established theater company like SART with the glamour and enthusiasm of a young company like ALO. This collaboration is really allowing us to lift this show to Broadway style — that’s our goal.”
Aiello considers the production from a more philosophical angle: “What we can learn from Annie, both the historical figure and the character, is about taking risks,” she says. “Annie had talent, but she was poor and uneducated, and she chose to take the risk to go after what she wanted instead of staying in her place. We can all take an example from that.”
Starkey remarks that “Annie’s confidence is genuine; she doesn’t have an ego like Frank Butler. She just knows what she’s good at. In the rest of her life, she is really shy and uncertain. Her confidence is offensive to Frank because he wants to shape her into his ‘ideal’ woman — but she won’t change.”