Countryside Community Theatre's current, charming presentation of Annie Get Your Gun is directed by married couple Christina and William Myatt, and stars married couple Sheri and Wayne Hess as Annie Oakley and Frank Butler. (You'll also find the wedded Cheryl and John Wagner among the show's 38 cast members, plus several parent/child and sibling/sibling combinations.) Yet the production's most endearing, unexpectedly inspired couple turns out to be two performers who don't share 40 years between them, and whose characters you're probably unfamiliar with if your only exposure to this Irving Berlin classic comes via Ethel Merman's glorious blare.
In roles cut from Annie Get Your Gun's legendary 1966 revival, Stephanie Seward and Sam Wagner play Winnie Tate and Tommy Keeler, teenage lovers whose knife-throwing act has landed them tenure in Buffalo Bill's touring Wild West Show. The majority of Berlin's musical is actually devoted to the competitive romance between sharpshooters Oakley and Butler, who wage a war of wits (and rifles) while traveling late-19th-Century America. But every so often - at least in the show's 1999 renovation, with its book by Peter Stone - our gaze is focused instead on Winnie and Tommy, and Countryside's take on Stone's revision would no doubt be a lesser one without Seward and Wagner.
Ebullience and charisma aren't easy things to fake, and these young actors exude such natural stage presence and unforced enthusiasm here that it's almost as if they were continually accompanied by their own, individual spotlights. Their illumination, though, is all the brighter when shared. Singing in lovely harmony, and dancing together with a loose-limbed ease that suggests that nothing in the world is quite as much fun, Seward and Wagner make for a radiantly entertaining pair whose ace comic skills and beaming grins are showcased to joyful effect. They are, quite simply, a musical-theatre lover's dream, and the twosome's talents would've been even more evident on Saturday if the sound emanating from Seward's body microphone wasn't doing its damnedest to trash their routines.
Unfortunately, the actress' malfunctioning mic had company. Lots of company. It is my unhappy duty to announce that Annie Get Your Gun is this week's winner of the Sound Quality from Hell Award, as Saturday's show was yet another in a tireless string of summertime performances ambushed by treacherously bad tech. I hate to sound like a broken record on this issue, but seriously, what's the freakin' deal? Why are hard-working actors (to say nothing of audiences) being routinely punished by sound that only allows us to hear half of their dialogue and lyrics, and blasts us at high decibels before turning inaudible again, and occasionally amplifies backstage chatter louder than the on-stage chatter? With every aural disruption, audiences are immediately yanked from a show's reality - the way we would be if a patron's cell phone rang at regular intervals - and Berlin's songs here are so beautiful and clever and funny that it's particularly insulting to hear them amplified (or not) so poorly. (Thankfully, music director Rochelle Eisenga-Schrader's 20-piece orchestra plays the composer's score with exceptional brio.)
When your enjoyment isn't being interrupted, though, Annie Get Your Gun is a frequent hoot, boasting gorgeous costumes (coordinated by Sara Pethound), an impressive set, and an ensemble that appears to be having a sensational time enacting charlatans, divas, and other no-business-like-show-business types. John Wagner, whose vocals are thrillingly resonant, attacks his emcee role with gusto, and John Donald O'Shea is beautifully cast as Sitting Bull, earning big laughs with his stoically sensible proclamations. Jim Seward, also in great voice, is positively riotous, playing Buffalo Bill as a grizzled and gleefully untrustworthy Southern dandy; each of Seward's hilarious asides ("Everybody lo-o-oves surprises ... .") sounds as though it's been dipped in an eye-wateringly potent Mint Julep.
Meanwhile, the divine Sheri Hess, with her mischievous twinkle and sneakily underplayed wit, makes for a dynamically engaging and effervescent Annie Oakley, delivering both heartfelt ballads and lyrically priceless comedic numbers (especially the wonderful "You Can't Get a Man With a Gun") with equal panache. Husband Wayne isn't nearly as secure on his vocals, which leads to occasional atonality - you can see the confidence drain from his face whenever Frank begins to sing - but he projects the requisite vanity and pompousness, and the Hesses come through with a bunch of infectiously kinetic comic rhythms. (They were even amusing during Saturday's rendition of "Anything You Can Do," despite their obvious struggle with lyrics.)
Adding the production's large, smiling ensemble cast (among them several terrifically gifted youths), the oftentimes inventive staging (the set rotation that found Annie singing to us through her full-length mirror was really nice), and a series of so-silly-they're-perfect sharpshooting effects, Annie Get Your Gun makes for a fine season-ender for Countryside. And allow me a moment to praise performer Bonnie Spainhower, who only has a couple of lines here, but whose topnotch diction and projection ensured that we didn't miss a word she said. Guess what? She wasn't wearing a body mic.
For tickets and information, call (563)285-6228 or visit CCTOnStage.org.