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Annie Get Your Gun and Dying City 

Plus: State of the Union, TopDog/ Underdog, Doubt

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Annie Get Your Gun
N.C. Theatre
Through March 2

No one person can own a role, it's true. Now we can add Raleigh native Lauren Kennedy to the list of charismatic performers who have taken a crack at sharpshooter Annie Oakley, a gallery that includes Ethel Merman, Bernadette Peters and Reba McEntire.

Kennedy's performance was something of a homecoming with North Carolina Theatre, where she worked with its Kids on Broadway program before she moved on to her own career on Broadway. On the opening weekend at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the Progress Energy Center, Kennedy was charming as the sharp-tongued, quick-witted Annie, while benefiting from an audience that was happy to fall in love with Oakley as she transformed from a backwoods girl with dirt on her cheeks to a polished young woman. Kennedy plays up the broad comedy of Annie's character with ease, emphasizing her country gait and speech with a wink and smile while simultaneously maintaining a simple earthiness that allows her character to be both vulnerable and strong.

Irving Berlin's classic musical wouldn't be complete without a little friendly competition and irresistible romance. Here, Grammy Award-winning Larry Gatlin takes up the part of the smooth Frank Butler, Annie's love interest and sharpshooting rival. Gatlin boasts a strong, clear voice that bounces off Kennedy's sparkling soprano, amplifying the sexual politics of numbers like "Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)" and "The Girl That I Marry." Ultimately, it's his surefooted arrogance and manliness that make him believable as the apple of Annie's eye.

N.C. Theatre's Annie Get Your Gun is well served by the surefire performances of its stars. But the whole presentation of the musical is hugely satisfying, with an attractive chorus outfitted in bright, summery costumes and sparkling Western attire. The dance numbers are cheery and colorful, and the chorus of voices overwhelmed the audience with vibrancy. —Kathy Justice

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Dying City
Manbites Dog Theater
Through March 8

Feline in the stealth of its unfolding, Christopher Shinn's Dying City is powerfully written and topically poignant as it limns three characters affected by the Iraq war—Craig, an Army reserve officer; his twin brother Peter, a gay actor; and Kelly, a psychotherapist who is married to Craig. With a slight 70-minute run time, the play focuses on how war has affected the core of these characters. Set on two memorable nights—the night before Craig's departure to Iraq in early 2004, and a night in the summer of 2005, a year after his death—the play offers just as many (if not more) questions than answers.

Manbites Dog Theater's production does a fine job presenting Shinn's script, with Jay O'Berski (playing both brothers) and Dana Marks often demonstrating a strong onstage connection in each pairing. This production, directed by Jeff Storer, falls short, however, of leaving its mark on the script, which, due to its many unanswered questions, provides the cast with the chance to probe deeper into these characters' existence. Near the play's end, Peter gives Kelly devastating news, but the question of whether Peter meant to do this as an act of revenge, or passed the information more innocently, is left disappointingly ambiguous. Likewise, the actors imitate the characters more than they embody them. O'Berski effectively distinguishes Peter from Craig, but his Peter is stronger than his Craig (which parallels the relative strengths of the script). Marks infuses Kelly with indignation and withdrawal, but at times her portrayal lacks needed vulnerability. While the actors often demonstrated the familiarity of a longtime couple, their chemistry was weaker at times, such as Craig's farewell to Kelly, which seemed rushed and insincere compared to the moment's scripted intensity.

Credit is due to Derrick Ivey for the sparse yet engaging set, particularly for his New York skyline, represented through stark white rectangles of varying sizes that lurked in the shadows like a barricade of ghostly guards. —Megan Stein

State of the Union
Deep Dish Theater
Through March 8

It's tempting to call State of the Union a period piece that only confirmed political junkies could love. But let's face it: Most of those addicts have had some combination of Hunter S. Thompson on the mainline since Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, with escalations in their dosages of Drudge, O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann through the ensuing decades.

Sorry, but Howard Lindsey and Russel Crouse's comparatively genteel 1945 political comedy is likely to have about as much of a detoxifying effect on that particular body politic as a handful of baby aspirins on an outpatient in methadone maintenance. As a result, the current Deep Dish Theater production is, mainly, inoffensive—presumably not the first quality political theater aspires to.

Still, it is good to hear Jordan Smith's authoritative baritone on the local stage again. Leading actors Jeri Lynn Schulke, David zum Brunnen and Susannah Hough are complemented by Larry Evans, Holmes Morrison, Sharlene Thomas and Margaret Jemison. But the shortcomings of the 60-year-old script prevents such a seasoned cast from achieving its best. —Byron Woods

TopDog/ Underdog
Playmakers Rep
Through March 2

Definitely not to be missed, Topdog/ Underdog is the sharp, exhilarating story of two brothers named Lincoln and Booth—their father's idea of a joke, we're told. Together they pair off into an alternately loving and threatening tango, bearing testament to the luck of the draw as two black men, abandoned by their parents and captivated by the con game three-card monte. Here, Brandon Dirden (Booth) and Tyrone Mitchell Henderson (Lincoln) deserve equal merit for this two-hander set entirely in Booth's one-room apartment. —Megan Stein

Playmakers Rep
Through Feb. 29

John Patrick Shanley's 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning play features Julie Fishell as Sister Aloysius, a Catholic school principal in the Bronx who suspects a parish priest of sex abuse. Though Fishell's Aloysius is a character-based concerto, under Drew Barr's direction she occasionally leans too hard on certain notes and volumes. Jeffrey Blair Cornell is subtle as the suspected priest Father Flynn; and the conflict between the two builds commendable force. —Byron Woods


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