Theater That's More Than a Meal 

Chaffin's Barn's production of Annie Get Your Gun raises the bar for dinner theater

Chaffin's Barn's production of Annie Get Your Gun raises the bar for dinner theater

Annie Get Your Gun

Through Aug. 28 at Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre

To the purist, dinner theater resides at the lower end of the artistic spectrum. Levels of performance and production may vary from town to town, but the fact is that the very term "dinner theater" immediately calls into question which is uppermost in the mind of the sponsoring group: the dinner, or the theater. As with any entertainment enterprise, the idea is to hook people into the venue. But I wouldn't want to wager any money on whether the typical dinner-theater audience is more concerned with what happens to the characters in The Odd Couple than they are with the barbecued beef, the multitude of side dishes or the dessert bar.

The 1991 movie Soapdish offers a wicked portrait of dinner-theater culture, as a has-been actor (Kevin Kline) toils painfully as Willy Loman in a Florida production of Death of a Salesman, spouting Arthur Miller's doleful dialogue while bored septuagenarian couples nosh on boiled chicken. And let's not forget, dinner-theater tickets are fairly pricey; you're not paying $40 just to see a cast of mostly semi-professionals work a British sex farce to death. Hopefully, at least there are some decent laughs to go along with the lasagna and libations. But one thing you'll probably never hear from sophisticated theatergoers is that dinner-theater gets a bad rap.

Fortunately for Nashvillians, Martha Wilkinson is not your typical dinner-theater veteran. Wilkinson sports serious talent credentials and used to be a fully vested union professional, until she threw her lot in, full-force, with Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre several years back. In between working as the Barn's marketing director, and now as artistic director, Wilkinson has graced the company's in-the-square stage in numerous light-comic and musical roles. Some productions work out better than others. In 2002, Wilkinson starred in The Sound of Music, an overall mixed effort in which she played the lead with her typical zest, though the role might have gone to someone more age-appropriate. These things happen in dinner-theater, though.

But thank heavens that Wilkinson is still around to take the lead in the Barn's new production of Annie Get Your Gun. The script for this Irving Berlin musical vehicle was revised in 1999 by the late theater, film and TV writer Peter Stone (1776), who, in updating the text, was unable to deal completely with the stereotyped caricatures of American Indians, despite excising the obviously controversial song "I'm an Indian, Too." But keep in mind that the show dates from 1946, when Ethel Merman made a huge Broadway success bringing the character of Annie Oakley to life, and a big part of its charm is its sentimentality, its old-fashionedness, and its set-'em-up-and-knock-'em-down one-liners. The most important element, though, is Berlin's score, and Wilkinson makes this evening her own, singing the catchy songs with beauty, assuredness and comic sass. The more familiar numbers are there, all right—"Doin' What Comes Natur'lly," "You Can't Get a Man with a Gun," "I Got the Sun in the Morning"—and Wilkinson, perfectly cast this time around, artfully opts to play down the hambone humor in favor of subtlety. Best of all, she infuses new life into such gracious, lesser-known Berlin ballads as "Moonshine Lullaby" and "I Got Lost in His Arms." She also sports some dazzling Western-gear costumes courtesy of Billy Ditty, who choreographed the show, besides doing some singing and hoofing of his own.

Wilkinson's husband, David Compton, does a stalwart job of directing the busy proceedings, which include clever sharpshooting tricks, a handful of energetic if unspectacular dance numbers, and a general spirit of cornball fun. Supporting players of note are Jack Hoke, who gives us a suitably hokey Buffalo Bill; Bobby Wyckoff, who effectively winks his way through the role of opportunistic Wild West Show manager Charlie Davenport; and Elizabeth Bailey and Jennifer Noel, who play the battling Tate sisters, the former's sweetness balanced capably against the latter's petulance.

Kevin Thornton, who has appeared previously at the Barn—in between work with his local rock band Thornton—plays Frank Butler, Annie's love interest and chief competitor in the marksmanship game. He's a first-rate singer, and he's right there with Wilkinson in the duets "They Say It's Wonderful" and the delightfully comical "Anything You Can Do." He might have played up the machismo a bit more, though—the Butler role should never skimp when it comes to bravado, blind ego and smug self-satisfaction. Were Thornton to play his character more robustly, we'd get a clearer portrait of Butler—and probably a lot more laughs.

Piano accompanist Susan Brown is excellent, stylishly playing her way through the tuneful score, which also includes the evergreen "Show Business." The Barn has added an additional keyboardist, Joel Bolen, whose synth pads and orchestral flourishes add a welcome fullness to the 20 or so numbers.

Dinner theater or not, Chaffin's Barn's Annie Get Your Gun is on the mark where it counts, thanks primarily to its estimable leading lady. When the production is this good, $40 for a meal and a skillfully staged musical is a perfectly fair price to pay.

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