On April 2, 1908, world-renowned sharpshooter Annie Oakley walked onto a field near the old horse show grounds in Charlottesville.
The 46-year-old woman from Ohio blew kisses, waved and bowed as hundreds of spectators greeted her with thunderous cheers and applause. When things settled down a bit, she picked up a gold-plated .22-caliber rifle from a table and proceeded to put on the greatest exhibition of marksmanship likely ever witnessed by the onlookers.
Oakley's husband, Frank E. Butler, stood 30 paces away, a big smile on his face and a small piece of chalk between his fingers. The wife took aim and fired -- and a puff of white was seen clearly by the audience as the bullet pulverized the target.
That turned out to be the easiest shot of the exhibit. It soon became apparent why the great Sioux Indian chief Sitting Bull gave Oakley the name "Watanya cicilia," which means "Little Sure Shot."
When it comes to entertainment, it's hard to miss the bull's-eye when presenting the Irving Berlin classic musical, "Annie Get Your Gun," which opens Thursday in the University of Virginia's Culbreth Theatre. The production launches this season's Heritage Theatre Festival, which offers four additional plays this summer.
"We've never done 'Annie Get Your Gun' before, and I think it's one of the great classics of the American theater," said Robert Chapel, director of the play and producing artistic director of the festival. "The musical score by Irving Berlin is one of the best ever written, period. In its time, it had one hit song after another.
"The other big reason for doing it is that we always try to start our season with a big classic musical, usually American.
"Before I became producer and artistic director in 1995, we hadn't done many musicals. But since then, we have slowly worked our way through a lot of musicals, and this one is a fun story about the battle of the sexes."
Although the play is a fictionalized version of how Oakley and Butler fell in love, there is some truth in the tale. In real life, and in the production, the two met during a shooting competition put on by the owner of a hotel that Oakley supplied with small game she shot.
Oakley wins the shooting match in reality and on stage. But instead of a battle, it was love at first sight for both, and they would marry within a year.
But conflict is often an important element in a play, and Dorothy Fields and her brother Herbert Fields, who wrote the book for the musical, masterfully create it. And Berlin assures its success by writing timeless songs like "There's No Business Like Show Business," "Anything You Can Do" and "The Girl I Marry."
The musical opened on Broadway on May 16, 1946, and was an immediate hit. It enjoyed long runs in New York City and London before becoming a perennial favorite for theaters everywhere.
The production being staged for the Heritage Theatre Festival is the revised version created by Peter Stone. This offering is structured as a "show-within-a-show," making it easier to stage.
"Stone was authorized by the Berlin estate to revise it, because there are several songs and elements to the show that had become politically incorrect in today's world," Chapel explained. "Buffalo Bill now tells the story of Annie Oakley and Frank Butler.
"It's still the same plot, but it's now set under Buffalo Bill's big tent. Kathryn Springman is designing the set, and it's huge.
"One nice thing is because it's set in the center ring of the big tent and the story is told there, we're able to use a lot of smaller set props. The old version had enormous scenic drops that would have had to be flown in."
The 30-member cast is made up of professional actors and several students, all of whom are paid. After three weeks of rehearsing, polishing and refining, Chapel is eager to get the new season underway.
Heritage Theatre Festival was started in 1974, with the idea that it would present established, classical American plays. During the ensuing years, it has expanded its horizon to include all kinds of shows and even has done some Shakespeare.
In addition to this season's opener, the show bill includes "Red," "Tuna Does Vegas," "The Marvelous Wonderettes" and "Next To Normal."
Chapel said the major challenge with "Annie Get Your Gun" is the size of the production.
"It is about as big as you can get," Chapel said of the musical, which originally starred Ethel Merman as Oakley. "The costume designer, Dorothy Smith, has more than 60 costumes to put on the bodies, so that's an enormous task.
"We have just three weeks to prepare for this musical, but we're in good shape. Much of the credit for this goes to my musical director, Greg Harris, and choreographer, Renee Dobson.
"Our lighting director, Jake Kvanbeck, and production manager, Steve Warner, also deserve a lot of credit."
Although the musical is a fanciful depiction of a time in Oakley's life, her astounding feats of marksmanship need no embellishment. As part of her act, she routinely hit the thin edge of a playing card at 90 feet, and once shot a cigarette out of the mouth of Crown Prince William, later to become Germany's Wilhelm II.
For her finale here in Charlottesville in 1908, Oakley turned her back on a small target that was 30 yards away. Pointing a rifle over her shoulder, she used the reflection in a silver-plated knife to aim, fire and hit the bull's-eye.
Chapel is betting that the lineup for this year's festival is right on target as well.
"I hope people will not only come to see our opener, but our other productions as well," Chapel said. "We're also doing two relatively serious pieces, 'Red' and 'Next To Normal.'
"And then two really fun and kind of silly pieces, 'The Marvelous Wonderettes' and 'Tuna Does Vegas.' So I think we have a real eclectic group of plays and musicals this summer.
"The remodeling is done, and the entire lobby is gorgeous. And we now have the brand new Ruth Caplin Theatre. At the end of the summer, I'm going to have three plays running simultaneously in each of our three theaters, so that's going to be great fun."
"Annie Get Your Gun" opens the Heritage Theatre Festival season at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Culbreth Theatre. Encore presentations will be at the same time on June 28 and 29 and July 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.
Tickets are $45, $40 for seniors, UVa faculty, staff and alumni and $20 students. Tickets and additional information are available at www.virginia.edu/heritagetheatre/.
"Annie Get Your Gun"
Heritage Theatre Festival
7:30 p.m. Thursday; runs through July 6
$45; $40 seniors and UVa faculty, staff and alumni; $20 students