COUNTRY SUPERSTAR REBA MCENTIRE'S DOWN-HOME CHARM HITS THE BULL'S-EYE IN BROADWAY'S ANNIE GET YOUR GUN

By Chris Willman
Updated March 30, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

Annie Get Your Gun

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A visitor to Reba McEntire’s dressing room is admiring some backstage snapshots. A familiar Okie twang suddenly chimes in from behind to provide captions. ”That’s me with Faith Hill,” McEntire says, pointing out her onetime protege. ”That’s Rosie O’Donnell and me. That’s Barbara Walters. There’s Tony Bennett….I got these at the Pottery Barn,” she cheerfully adds. ”The frames, not the pictures. Hi, I’m Reba!”

Well, natur’lly. She’s also the toast of Manhattan and uncontested reigning diva of Broadway, improbably enough. Longtime leading lady of country music? That too, though that role’s on hold for a few months. In late January, McEntire commandeered the lead in a long-running Broadway production of Annie Get Your Gun and, in bringing an extra level of naive ebullience to the musical’s aw-shucks sharpshooter, she single-handedly — or double-barreledly — revived a nearly expired revival. Considering that she’d never acted in a play before, the critics may have had their cutlery to the grindstone, ready to take on another case of Broadway’s ”stunt casting” epidemic, but that was before everyone decided McEntire made the best Annie Oakley since, well, Annie Oakley.

Her stack of raves would make Ethel Merman, the part’s rosy originator, crimson with envy. ”Hands down, the most winning performance on a Broadway stage right now,” praised the Post. ”You’d swear Irving Berlin wrote it just for her,” gushed Gannett’s critic. Liz Smith took the liberty of crowning her ”the new queen of Broadway.” ”My mama couldn’t have written those,” McEntire allows, still lacking the tiara to top her stylishly short red ‘do. And then, against all odds, there was the Times’ Ben Brantley, who’d almost made a crusade out of panning Tony winner Bernadette Peters in the part, likewise bowing to royalty. ”Ms. McEntire doesn’t need a gun to bring Manhattan to its knees,” he enthused. The score’s famous advice notwithstanding, maybe you can get a man, if not Manhattan, with a Winchester.

Not that the classic 1946 comedy calls for any great verisimilitude, but McEntire may be the first major Annie Oakley — well, except for that Annie Oakley — who knows her way around a firearm. The singer took up a rifle in her first acting role, blasting away at giant worms in the 1990 cult flick Tremors, ”but that wasn’t sharpshooting,” she points out. Other parts she’s taken up in a succession of mostly supporting roles over the last decade weren’t too demanding on her trigger finger. But she learned to aim in earnest in 1995 while preparing for a role in the TV movie Buffalo Girls as…Annie Oakley. She’s since become a skeet shooter and a trapper as well. Needless to say, the suspension of disbelief may be a slightly shorter jog here than with Cheryl Ladd and Susan Lucci, to name a couple of McEntire’s immediate Oakley predecessors.

The singer’s connection to the show’s late-19th-century milieu runs deeper than that. Raised on an 8,000-acre ranch just outside Chockie, Okla. — population: 18 — she and her parents and three siblings ”grew up in the rodeo circuit, which was very similar to the Wild West show. My grandpap bulldogged a steer one time off the running board of an old car. He was the world champion steer roper in ’34, and then my daddy was the champion for ’57, ’58, and ’61. So we were always a part of the entertainment business, either by rodeoing or singing…”

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Annie Get Your Gun

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