Jenn Gambatese becomes markswoman Annie Oakley in 'Annie Get Your Gun'
Musical comedies tend to offer actresses a certain kind of lead part - romantic, swoony, maybe a little helpless.
And then there's "Annie Get Your Gun."
Tough, sharpshootin' Annie Oakley isn't your average role, and no one knows that more than actress Jenn Gambatese, who is playing Annie in the production at the Goodspeed Opera House.
"A lot of times, your leading lady slot doesn't get to be such a capital C character. (Annie) has this huge arc, from country bumpkin to world-wide superstar and all that entails. That's just her own journey, not even her love story journey," she says. "You get to do everything. You get to be silly and physical and pretty and, pardon my French, but kind of badass. Really fun."
The real Annie Oakley was indeed an intriguing character and was the first real female superstar. Born in 1860 in Ohio, Oakley entered a shooting contest at age 16 with the already-famous Frank Butler. She won the match by one point, and the two eventually fell in love. They were linked by their careers, too, since Butler recognized Annie's potential and became her personal manager. They joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, where Oakley starred as the main attraction for 17 years.
For Gambatese, the toughest part of playing Annie is making it look as though she's Oakley-level comfortable with handling a gun. Gambatese had shot a gun before - her father-in-law brought her husband and her into the Arizona desert to give it a try. She said early last week, "I was actually a pretty good shot - a really good shot. But it's not this natural extension of my body, of my arm, that it is for her. That's important. I'm still working on that, to make it look like nothing."
Beyond the issues inherent in playing Oakley is the fact that "Annie" marks Gambatese's first return to acting since she and her husband, Curtis Cregan, became parents 11 months ago to their baby daughter, Jojo.
"It's definitely challenging being that it's my first one back being a mom," she says. "But I was talking to a girlfriend the other night, and I told her that I just keep reminding myself to relish this because parts like this just don't come along that often. It's a lot of hard work. It's a bit of a marathon, this show, but it's the most fun marathon."
"Annie Get Your Gun," which premiered on Broadway in 1946, boasts a book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields and one of the most hit-packed scores around. The Irving Berlin songs include "There's No Business Like Show Business," "They Say It's Wonderful," "I Got the Sun in the Morning," "Anything You Can Do" and "You Can't Get a Man with a Gun."
The most famous star of "Annie Get Your Gun" was the first, the larger-than-life Ethel Merman.
"It's ironic that it was her big role and, after her, a lot of more mature leading ladies tackled it because, really, (Annie) was very young," Gambatese, who is 34, says. "Not that I'm all that young, but I play young. I think Rob (Ruggiero, the show's director) has talked about that he really is happy to be telling the story a bit more historically accurate in terms of the difference between Annie and Frank's age."
That relationship has, in the past, been one of the points of modern feminist discussion when it came to "Annie Get Your Gun." In the show, Annie talks and sings about not wanting to outdo a man she's trying to attract. Gambatese, though, says that Peter Stone's revision of the script for the 1999 revival addresses some of the American Indian insensitivities as well as some of the women's issues.
At the same time, the real Annie Oakley certainly didn't consider herself a feminist. The women's movement adopted her as a standard bearer, but she was fairly neutral when it came to the suffragist movement - Oakley wasn't against it but wasn't politically involved either.
Gambatese says, "She was sort of an unwitting feminist pioneer. She was very much a product of her upbringing and her time. As amazing as she was and as confident as she was, she didn't really believe in women wearing pants. So her show (outfits) were always skirts. She made her own costumes. She embroidered. This was the Victorian time period. So she definitely was a product of that.
"Yet, she always believed women should be comfortable with firearms and there's nothing to stop them from shooting as well or better than a man."
"Reefer Madness" to "Little House on the Prairie"? Yup, Jenn Gambatese has quite a diverse musical-theater resume.
She played Natalie - who disguises herself as a guy - in "All Shook Up" at Goodspeed's Norma Terris Theatre and then on Broadway.
She was in the original Broadway cast of "Hairspray," in the ensemble and then taking over the role of Penny Pingleton, Tracy Turnblad's best friend.
We asked her about a few of the eclectic shows in her past.
"Tarzan," Broadway, 2006-7: Gambatese played Jane in Disney's big show, which featured songs by Phil Collins and a whole lot of special effects and stunts. She had to handle a literal obstacle course for her audition, with crash helmet provided.
She says "Tarzan" was a tremendous experience - and what an intro she had to the audience.
"For my first entrance, I was corseted, harnessed, in heels - boots with heels - wearing a 26-pound skirt," she says. And she had to hit a big note while getting lifted about 30 feet in the air.
"Reefer Madness," Off-Broadway, 2001: "It was really a fun show. I was in the ensemble and understudied Kristen Bell, actually, who's a big movie star now. It was funny, that was definitely not part of my adolescence (laughs) so I was asking a lot of questions."
"Little House on the Prairie," Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis, Minn., 2008: "I played Mary, the one who goes blind, so that was a wonderful acting challenge for me. It was so funny - once, after the show, somebody was like, 'You're not blind?' I said, 'But I was sighted at the beginning of the show."
"Those books were very dear to me growing up. I devoured them. (At the Guthrie), you're not far from the prairie, so we took a trip, and I actually saw the house that I had read about. It was just how you pictured it."
- KRISTINA DORSEY
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