'Annie Get Your Gun' In The Open Air

Clay & Wattles sounds like it might be an old-fashioned trick-riding sport, like skeet-shooting or Cowboy Mounted Shooting. Which isn't a bad confusion to have, since the Clay & Wattles theater company is presenting the sharp-shooting Irving Berlin musical "Annie Get Your Gun" beginning Friday, Aug. 1 at The Gary The Olivia Theater in Bethlehem.

Clay & Wattles' name comes from an Irish poem by William Butler Yeats:

"I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made."

For Clay & Wattles' co-founders Tom and Sally Camm, the name evokes a sense of nature that's implicit in all their productions. The shows are staged in a covered, open-air performance space on the grounds of the Abbey of Regina Laudis.

The 300-seat theater was constructed in the early 1980s with the support of the stage and screen star Patricia Neal; the abbey's longtime support for the arts stems in part from its Rev. Mother Dolores Hart, who was a film actress (opposite Elvis Presley in both "Loving You" and "King Creole" ) before joining the Bethlehem monastery in 1963. The Clay & Wattles group operates separately from the abbey and has become the resident theater company at The GaryThe Olivia theater.

"We have a wonderful relationship with the abbey," says Sally Camm, who's directing "Annie Get Your Gun," which runs through Aug. 17. "We're really about presenting human nature in all its elements, and learning from that." Camm touts this show's "non-traditional" set design by acclaimed Woodbury-based mural artist Matt Wood, designed to extend the natural beauty of the theater's bucolic rural location.

Building upon some of its inspired programming choices of recent seasons — two Horton Foote one-acts this past June, the old New York politics musical "Fiorello" last summer and the big-business comedy "The Solid Gold Cadillac" in 2012, all solid hits for the company — the bigger-than-life root-'em-too-'em bluster of "Annie Get Your Gun" seems surefire. Irving Berlin shows are particularly popular this season, with a stage version of the Berlin-scored film "Holiday Inn" premiering at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam in September and a national tour of "White Christmas" coming to the Shubert in New Haven in December.

"Annie Get Your Gun" had its Broadway premiere in 1946, just 20 years after the death of Annie Oakley, the real-life Wild West sharpshooter who inspired this "Doin' What Comes Naturally" romance. The show originally starred Ethel Merman as Oakley, while the subsequent national tour (which visited Connecticut) starred Mary Martin.

The Clay & Wattles production, which stars New York-based actress, singer and dancer Chandra Albritton as Annie Oakley and Thomas Camm as Annie's love interest Frank Butler, has chosen to use the retooled script from the show's 1966 revival (which again featured Merman in the title role) rather than the now-standard 1999 revision of the script by playwright Peter Stone (for the Tony-winning Bernadette Peters/Tom Wopat revival).

The '66 version, Sally Camm says, "is the last one Irving Berlin himself touched. There were lots of good things I wanted to pull out in it." One thing she's been able to do is "strengthen the relationship between Annie and Sitting Bull. We also want to focus on the fact that Annie Oakley was this preeminent athlete woman. She became a role model.

"You can't go wrong with Irving Berlin. This is his greatest score for a stage musical. It's an American classic. But what always intrigued me about the story was that these were real people."

>>"Annie Get Your Gun" runs Aug. 1 through17, with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $30. The Gary The Olivia Theater is at 249 Flanders Road in Bethlehem. The Clay & Wattles season ends Sept. 13 with a one-night concert event, "So in Love… with the American Musical." Information: 203-273-5669 and thegarytheolivia.com.