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Valenzuela shines as lead in 'Annie'

“Annie Get Your Gun” is a big, classic musical with a full-on ensemble in boots and buckskins. The 1946 Broadway hit, updated in the 1999 revival, opened last week at Camelot Theatre in Talent.

Annie Oakley meets up with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in Cincinnati and falls in love with Frank Butler, a handsome ladies man and champion sharpshooter. Annie’s the deadeye, though, and when she and Frank face off in a shooting match, she takes the prize money. Annie joins the roadshow (hoping Frank will notice her), winning fame and fortune wherever she competes.

The production opens with Eoghan McDowell on stage as Frank, grooming and preening to ready himself for a show before breaking into song. Buffalo Bill, played by doppelganger Justin Tyler Martin, roars onto the stage explaining the premise of the play. He introduces Frank and the other performers, who cavort about with glee, and they all join in to sing “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”

Rodgers and Hammerstein produced “Annie Get Your Gun,” persuading Irving Berlin to write the lyrics and scores, so dramatic orchestral accompaniment to snappy lines and smooch scenes was inevitable. Like “Oklahoma” three years earlier, “Annie” is characterized as a narrative or story expressed in song rather than in exposition, a technique that revolutionized musical theater. And that’s what that opening number does — it sets the scene and lets us know there’s going to be great excitement and some pretty dismal days, too.

Sabrina Valenzuela has the lead as Annie, and her toothy grin and naive manner are totally engaging. Sabrina’s huge voice has range and depth, filling the theater during the signature sets that stick in your head. In “Doin’ What Comes Naturally,” Annie, along with her three sibs and Lanny Horn as Foster Wilson, explains her rural background and why people do what they do.

You can find a number of mid-20th-century stereotypes in “Annie,” but really, this classic production is no place to be offended. Justin Briggs is lugubrious rather than noble, playing Chief Sitting Bull for laughs with jokes about oil on the rez and casinos. The talented Rigo Jimenez is back at Camelot, this time in the role of Tommy Keeler, who is of Sioux Indian and Irish heritage. You’ll hear some slights as he woos and wins Winnie Tate, played by Keely McLean. Jimenez and McLean are a fine dance team and steamy kissers, too.

This post-World War II production positions Annie as a Rosie the Riveter of sorts, America trying to figure out a woman’s role after the soldiers have come home from the war. Annie can earn her own way and she won’t step down or accept second place. As Annie, Valenzuela is absolutely furious in “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun,” and both “An Old Fashioned Wedding” and “The Girl That I Marry” establish Annie’s and Frank’s very different perspectives on life and marriage.

The differences between Annie’s and Frank’s social expectations make “Anything You Can Do” an even more epic battle, as Valenzuela and McDowell nearly tear each other’s heads off. At the end of the set, the full cast thunders “YES, YOU CAN!” finding compromise to save a romance and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

“Finale Ultimo” finishes the show, and is spectacular with all hands, arms, legs and boots on stage.

Vocal/music director Beatriz Abella and choreographer Melanie Marie (Marie also plays the role of Dolly Tate) are to be commended for their fine work on this musical production.

The big dance numbers of “Annie Get Your Gun” are ideal for the large cast that showcases local youthful talent, such as Jahnangel Jimenez as Little Jake, the very proper Ava Code as Jessie, Magill Echo Lowe as Nellie, Ashland’s capable Link Baldwin and others. It’s wonderful to see how the Camelot Theatre mentors young actors by giving them professional performance opportunities.

There were occasional crackles in the Camelot sound system, as if one of the mics was going bad; this has happened in other recent productions. Through most of this show, the pre-recorded soundtrack seemed to overwhelm the voices of the cast, with the exception of the big ensemble numbers and Valenzuela, whose voice is always on top.

“Annie Get Your Gun” is director Roy Von Rains Jr.’s final Camelot show, and Shawn Ramagos picks up the reins in April.

“Annie Get Your Gun” is suitable for all audiences, including children, and continues through April 1. Tickets are available by calling 541-535-5250 or online at www.CamelotTheatre.org.

— Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

Eoghan McDowell, left, and Sabrina Valenzuela appear in Camelot Theatre's 'Annie Get Your Gone.' [Photo by Steve Sutfin]