A Real Straight-Shooter

The touring company of 'Annie Get Your Gun' rides into town Tuesday at the Phil

Crystal Bernard photo

From: Naples Daily News 4/27/2001
By: Nancy Stetson

If Annie Oakley were around today, she'd probably be a lot like actress/singer Crystal Bernard — real down-home, from the sticks, a twang in her voice, a friendly woman without pretense. A real straight-shooter — no pun intended.

"The thing that sparked my attention (about Annie Oakley) was the fact that in 1860, she was one of our first stars," Bernard says. "That hit me. I went, 'Wow, I want to know what her life was like.' She was a world-wide star. She came from the sticks, uses wrong verb tenses, never been educated. Then she gets into the Buffalo Bill Show, falls in love, becomes the greatest sharpshooter in the world. I said, 'I want to know what happened, what the story is.' "

Bernard portrays Annie Oakley in the national touring production of "Annie Get Your Gun," playing at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts from May 1 to 6. At the end of the tour, she'll replace Reba McEntire, who's currently playing the sharpshooter on Broadway.

"Those are some shoes to fill," Bernard says. "I saw her performance, and it's everything they say. She is fabulous! And I'll tell you why — she's authentic. She is from the sticks, and so am I. We're cut out of the same cloth, so it really rings true."

McEntire sings the songs the way Annie would sing them, Bernard says.

"She really is good. She's made (the role) her own and taught me a lot from watching her performances. Not to copy her — that wouldn't work — but to do your own thing, what's true to yourself, and not get into the mindset of 'Am I doing the right thing,'Would they — whoever they are out there — would they like it?' She just puts it out there. She knows those folks, and I know them, that life in the sticks.

"You're going to see the character of Annie go from rags to riches, from dirt all over her face, you can't even tell she's a girl, to a princess, where the kings and queens of Europe are dazzled by her. She evolves herself into a sophisticated lady, but she's still the same person underneath. She's still standing."

Audiences may know Bernard from her many TV sit-coms. She played on "Happy Days" for one year, "It's a Living" for four, and was on "Wings" for eight years. She's maybe just as surprised as anyone else that she's performing in a musical.

"I am not a fan of musical theater, or wasn't, I should say. It was false to me; people talk very broadly and unrealistically, and then break into a song, and the song had no soul to it.

"When I was asked to do this, I was not aware of how musicals had changed. I'd been in L.A. for so long, away from New York theater. I was not up to speed on musicals. But now you have directors who go for the organic, they go for the real, they go for the surprises. (The performers) sing the Irving Berlin score, but they make it real, instead of going into this false, legitimately trained voice."

The musical contains many well-known classic Broadway songs: "There's No Business Like Show Business," "Anything You Can Do," "I Got the Sun in the Morning," "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly" and "You Can't Get a Man With A Gun." The show, which premiered in 1946, starred Ethel Merman. In 1958, Mary Martin played the role for a television version, co-starring with John Raitt. Many actresses have portrayed Annie Oakley in various versions of the musical, including Ginger Rogers, Betty Hutton, Martha Raye, Debbie Reynolds, Lucie Arnaz and Bernadette Peters.

The musical won the 1999 Tony Award for Best Musical Revival and received a Grammy in 2000 for Best Cast Recording.

Though Bernard's best known for her television acting, she began her career as a singer. She sang gospel music with her sister and father, who was a minister. Singer Bobbie Gentry, known for her hit "Ode to Billy Joe," heard them perform at a gospel jubilee in Mississippi and asked Bernard and her sister if they'd be willing to be featured in her Vegas show.

"My family was thrilled that we had this opportunity," Bernard says. So the family drove out to Vegas.

"It was (Gentry) and the two of us, doing skits," Bernard recalls. "We sang a couple of numbers by ourselves, and we sang on either side of her, moving, dancing. It was similar to what we had been doing, but it was formulated and there were costumes; nothing was spontaneous, everything was scripted."

Bernard, who was 14 at the time, thought Vegas was exciting.

"I remember squealing, screaming, when we drove into town in our Winnebago. I've never seen anything like that — how opulent the hotels are, red carpets. I'd never seen anything like it. It's so fun. It's nothing like what you'd have in your home.

"I can remember going to the blackjack table and playing, and the security guards looking out of the corner of their eyes and smiling, and letting me play for a little bit before coming over and suggesting that they escort me back to my room."

As an adult, Bernard had a hit with "(I Wanna Take) Forever Tonight," a duet with Peter Cetera. "It was No. 1 for 26 weeks," Bernard says. She signed with a record company, but they went out of business. Now she's looking for a new record label. Bernard also writes songs; Paula Abdul, Lisa Stansfield, Tracie Spencer and Debbie and Angie Winans have recorded some of them.

Bernard's been composing songs since she was 8.

"I write all the time," she says. "It's kind of my journal. I don't write a journal, I write songs. That's the draw, to put feelings to music."

She enjoys performing in "Annie Get Your Gun," which she describes as "non-stop funny, a hoot," but didn't have a lot of time to rehearse. The first night, performing in front of 4,500 people in Atlanta, she made a mistake and said her closing lines prematurely.

"I ended the play about five pages before the ending, before everybody else wraps up their stories," she confesses. "The lighting people didn't know what to do, the orchestra didn't know what page to go to, the conductor's calling out different measures. I look around, realize what I've done, and everybody's trying to do something. I could tell everybody's thinking, 'What to do, what can we do?' Buffalo Bill saved us. He asked me a question, I made something up, then we got into the elements."

The audience couldn't tell what had happened, she says, and gave them a standing ovation.

"When we went off stage, the whole cast just laughed and laughed," she says. "I told them we'd be having a different ending every night (and said) 'I couldn't bear to wrap up the ends with all your ancillary characters.' "

Bernard agrees that there is no business like show business.

"It's the art of imagination, that's why we get into show business," she says. "I feel a kindred spirit with a lot of actors and singers. We dream, we think of things, we try to lift the room. With people, we try to change the climate, we try to bring them up. We're very passionate. When something touches us, it really touches us.

"Some method actors say, if you want to cry, use a substitution, think of your mother dying. But real actors don't do that. We're so in the moment, we feel so deeply. We can get so up and so down.

"That's what we're drawn to, making people feel. There's no business like that. You're lost, but in a wonderful sense. When you're acting and singing, you're completely in the moment, you're telling someone a slice of life, a particular little detail. All of us watching are slowly understanding that small moment, that little slice of life, that one small thought. We're all feeling it and thinking it together, as a unit.