Fulton Theatre’s production of Annie Get Your Gun is an outstanding and extraordinary musical. Director, Marc Robin, and the entire cast and creative team have created an immersive experience in which the audience experiences elements of a circus that transports them back to the late 19th century and the story of Annie Oakley and Frank Butler. Heidi Kettenring (Annie Oakley), Curt Dale Clark (Frank Butler) and Kathy Voytko (Dolly Tate) provide top-notch performances. In addition, to this fantastic cast, Robin has added an element of Circus Arts with the addition of 2 Ring Circus to the cast. The addition of the element of circus arts makes this classic musical unlike anything audiences have seen before and they are sure to be talking for days about this unique theatrical experience at the Fulton.
I had the privilege of speaking with Heidi Kettenring, Curt Dale Clark and Kathy Voytko about this production of Annie Get Your Gun. They spoke with me about what audiences can expect when coming to see this musical at the Fulton, their favorite part of being in the show and how the addition of circus arts enhances the show.
Kelli Curtin: Could you tell me a little about what audiences can expect when coming to see Annie Get Your Gun at the Fulton Theatre?
Kathy Voytko: The best way I think to describe this show is not your parent’s version of Annie Get Your Gun.
Heidi Kettenring: That really is the truth. It is all immersive from the second people walk in the door. It is not just that it is different than any version of Annie Get Your Gun, it is even different from any show that I have done that I can think of in the recent past. From the second audiences walk in the door they are completely immersed in the Big Top atmosphere from the food to the Midway to actors performing circus tricks before the show even begins and this continues throughout the show. It really is an all immersive experience for the audience and the actors as well.
Curt Dale Clark: One thing that I think is awesome about this particular production is how people came to embrace the show. When we first started talking about it in rehearsal some of the actors thought that the concept of the show was cool, but there were others that were a little hesitant because it was unlike anything that they had seen before. However, now they really love this all immersive experience, it is their favorite part of being in this show. Every day people are sharing great stories with their interactions with the audience, it is great to hear how excited people are about this show.
Kelli: Could you share a favorite moment or experience from being in Annie Get Your Gun?
Heidi: This does not necessary have to do with the circus tricks before the show, but for me part of the experience that I love is that even the people who know and love Annie Get Your Gun forget they know parts of the show. Literally in every song I start, most of the songs from older musicals have an intro verse that people do not necessarily know because when these songs are performed in a concert setting or when it became popular the intro verses tend to be left out of the song. So, what I love is that with every single song I get through the little verse that people do not usually recognize and then I start to sing the part of the song that many people know, I hear a collective gasp of recognition in the audience, and it is really awesome to hear. I knew that people in the audience would recognize the music, but I did not anticipate the amount of people that would gasp in excitement when they hear certain songs like, “I’ve Got the Sun in the Morning.”
Kathy: My parents were here yesterday to see the show, and my parents are seasoned theatregoers. They were surprised at the amount of music they knew in this show, and had no idea these songs were in Annie Get Your Gun. Also, personally, nine times out of ten, I continue to watch the circus stuff before the show because it continues to thrill me. It amazes me every night, and is thrilling to watch.
Curt: I am a musical theatre nerd, and the thing that makes me happy more than anything is seeing the young ensemble members of this show hearing the music of Irving Berlin, and saying “That is a great song!” Now, I think a lot of them will use some of the songs from this show as audition music, where as if they had not been in this show this incredible score would have been unknown to them.
Kelli: Could you tell me what it is like to portray roles that are so iconic? How do you prepare for a role like this?
Heidi: This role is a hair different than experiences I have had before because the musical, Annie Get Your Gun, is such an extended version of what actually happened. Curt and I have spoken about this idea that this musical was written long enough ago before the time of Google and the internet, so the writers were able to stretch the story to make it a successful musical. People did not go see the show, and say “I don’t think that really happened, and then go look it up.” For me, for experiences like this, I did some research because I wanted to know who Annie Oakley was, and what her life was like. However, I stopped short of doing too much because the information I needed is in the pages of the play. I needed enough of the history to know who she was and what her story was, but I did not want to go too in-depth because that Annie Oakley is not the same Annie Oakley that is in the play necessarily. This provides a delightful kind of combination of feeling a sense of responsibility to depict Annie Oakley accurately, and also freedom from having to be completely her. For this role, I did a little less research then I have done for other shows because I think it would have done a disservice to the piece. I do love playing historical characters because not only do I get to honor the art form of live theatre that I love, but I also get to honor the life of someone I respect. As I do this part more I find I love her more every single day. To find out that Annie Oakley really was this delightful human being is an added bonus for me. I really do just love this character.
Curt: Sometimes playing historical characters can be an unwinnable battle if you let it get in your head because we remember everything with a filter and a sense of grandeur. The three of us, myself, Heidi and Kathy, have done shows together in Chicago in the past. And, we all have said frequently that “this show is the best show that ever was.” That is what we do as performers and as people who watch shows. People come to a show and they love it, and then ten years later they remember the show even better than it actually was. My point to this is that this applies to how we remember people in history. Playing Frank Butler is easy because most people have no idea who he really was, no one paid much attention to him in the sense of him being a historical figure as much as they did for Annie Oakley. The people who have played Frank, Tom Wopat or John Raitt, they were both great. However, people pay the most attention to whoever is playing Annie Oakley because this really is her story.
Kathy: I think some of the things that take the pressure off the iconic aspect is that Marc Robin had such a specific idea of how he wanted this story told, so it gave us a little bit of freedom so that we do not have to worry so much as to how it was told at a different time. This is how we are going to tell it at the Fulton, we did not want to recreate something that people have seen before. This is what gave us a little bit of freedom.
Kelli: Does the circus arts element of the show change the way you approach the show?
Heidi: Yes. I have never done Annie Get Your Gun before, so now it is the only way I know the show. What the element of circus arts does is from the very beginning of the show it is fun. Annie is a difficult on paper role, meaning I speak a lot with a heightened volume and accent and I sing a lot. I have been asked previously if it is really hard to play this role, and, yes, it is a hard role, but I have never had this much fun in a role. There are many elements to having this much enjoyment with a role, and it begins with the room of people I get to be in, including Marc and the Fulton. On the evening of the show itself, I can hear fifteen minutes before the show begins, while I am still getting ready, the call for “preshow places.” And, I can hear the actors in the audience and onstage doing circus tricks – I hear a whip cracking and I can hear things spinning in the air, while I am pinning up my wig. I cannot remember a time where I have been so excited to get out on stage. I can hear Josh [a member of the cast and 2 Ring Circus] talk to the audience and the audience talk back. Hearing the preshow as I am getting ready is just so cool. In the play, I also get to do a circus trick, which I am always a little nervous about because it is not something I have ever done before. However, what deletes my fear is that I am watching Joshua Dean spin down a rope and it is so thrilling to watch. I feel like a six year old watching the circus, and then I get to be in the circus.
Curt: I agree with Heidi, the same thing happens to me in that I am listening to what is happening out in the audience, and it is very fun to hear pockets of laughter way upstairs and then a pocket of laughter downstairs. It is cool because before the show there are acts going on onstage, and also upstairs. They are all doing different things, and it really is thrilling to hear.
Kelli: Do you have a favorite song/scene in the show?
Kathy: Yes, I actually have two. I wildly love Heidi singing “Moonshine Lullaby,” and it really makes me super happy. And, I also love hearing Curt sing “My Defenses are Down.” I did not know that song, and I really love that whole scene.
Curt: One of my favorite moments in hearing Kathy yell, “I’ll have in annulled.”
Heidi: I have a chunk of the show I really love, and it holds more of a personal meaning to me. In the first ten minutes I am onstage I walk out on stage and the first person I speak to is Kathy, and we get to do this awesome scene. Kathy and I have an eighteen year history, but we have only done two show together in that time. Then I turn around and Neil Friedman comes walking out and we have an eighteen or nineteen year history, and we have done three or four shows together. I have an amazingly fun scene with Neil. Then Neil leaves and the next person I turn around and see is Curt Dale Clark, and we also have an eighteen or nineteen year history between us. Curt and I have done countless shows together, and in this show we have an amazing scene together. It is this ten minute chunk of scenes with people I love while I am playing this character who I just love and who has this love for life. It is specifically at that point in the show Annie is nothing but honesty. All she knows is that she goes out to hunt her food, to sell it and to make money for her family. That is all she knows at that point. In this particular part I am talking about is when she is learning little bits and pieces that is going to create her arc through the whole play and I get to do it with three people that I trust, love and who can make me laugh.
Kelli: Are there any similarities between you and the character you play?
Kathy: There is very little about Dolly that is similar to me, which makes it so much fun to play her. The one part I can relate to is the silly part of Dolly, but the rage and the volume she speaks and the cynicism is nothing close to my personality at all. So, I am loving playing her every moment because she is so unlike me.
Heidi: I often find that my favorite roles to play are nothing like myself, and they are usually the ones I am most successful at. That being said, Annie Oakley is a different case in that the journey of Annie Oakley in this show is similar to my own. I do feel there is a bit of an arc in that this is what I love to do, and I am thrilled I get to do what I love to do, this is amazing, and as time goes by you start to learn the business side of what you do and you have to learn the difficulties of what it is. I have come back around to the point of where I personally am now, which is that I am so lucky to do what I love to do and I know the business and the difficulties of it and part of that is what makes me love it even more. This differs from the younger version of me who loved performing so much, but did not know the business side. Now I know the hard parts, but I still love it and that makes it that much sweeter and lovely. In playing Annie, I get to do what I love and not many people get to say that. In addition, with Annie Oakley she has a lyric:
How I wish the folks at home could only see What's come to Annie, how proud they'd be Gettin' paid for doin' what comes natur'lly
It is like I get paid to be who I am, it is just delightful. Marc often says that when you start to only think, if you are a performer or someone who works in theatre, about the job as just going to work then you lost why you became a performer to begin with.
Curt: Yes, I can be competitive and stubborn like Frank. What I find in the roles I have played, both this one and ones I have played in the past, is that I find things out about myself that I did not know previous to playing the role. Unfortunately, there are times that in playing a character I have found some things I do not like about myself. I have a connection to Frank we have some things in common, and the competitiveness is one thing I definitely have in common with him.
Kelli: Why, in your opinion, is live theatre important?
Kathy: We have so many serious things happening in the world daily. I feel like everyone needs that cathartic escape. People need to think about things other than what they are going through immediately and everyone needs something to relate to. Live theatre is fantastic for thinking, theatre is fantastic for healing and it is wonderful for joy and teaching.
Curt: The respite that Kathy just talked about is important. Sometimes when people take that break they go back to the topic that was hotly contested before and they see things through clearer and calmer eyes, and can actually make something happen. Theatre does teach, and although Annie Get Your Gun may not be the play that teaches hard life skills, many shows do that. Theatre teaches in a way that is more accessible to people. Theatre is similar to a parable in that it teaches life lessons.
Heidi: One of the many reasons why I think live theatre is so important is this – we can get escapism and joy from many things, but as we move along technologically in our lives it is very easy to live your life solitarily behind a screen. You can watch a television set in your house or you can watch a television show on a train. In a theatre you are communally gathered for an entertainment purpose. It is a shared experience, even though all the people you are sharing the live theatre experience with may have different political beliefs, religious beliefs or any other beliefs, for two and a half hours they have all communally chosen to be entertained in this room by this group of people. There is not a whole lot of that sort of thing in our lives anymore because it is so convenient to be alone. You can do many things alone, but there is something about that communal joy and that communal learning that is just unparalleled in today’s society.
Heidi Kettenring, Curt Date Clark and Kathy Voytko can be seen in Annie Get Your Gun at the Fulton Theatre through February 19, 2017. For more information and tickets please visit their website at www.thefulton.org or call the box office at 717-397-7425.
Photos courtesy of Fulton Theatre; Photo Credit: Kinectiv
Kelli Curtin is founding editor and writer for theatresensation.com. In addition, she is a contributor for the online site broadwayworld.com. Kelli is excited to share her passion about theatre and the Arts with her readers. Kelli can be found on Twitter, Facebook and on Instagram.