- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 1, 2001

NEW YORK When Reba McEntire was growing up in southeastern Oklahoma, she was a bit of a tomboy. Heck, more than a bit. She had no interest in dolls. Riding horses, herding cattle on her father's land, getting into arguments or fiercely competing with older brother Pake now that was fun.
"Our favorite game was 'Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better,' " the country superstar wrote in her 1994 autobiography, "Reba, My Story." Sound familiar, musical-theater fans?
Seven years later, she is singing the same refrain, only this time courtesy of Irving Berlin, whose "Annie Get Your Gun" has brought Miss McEntire, as Annie Oakley, to Broadway until the end of May.
She may be the most authentic Oakley yet. Ethel Merman, born in Astoria, Queens, was the first, in 1946, and the role has been attempted by such non-country folk as Dolores Gray (in London), Judy Garland, who was replaced by Betty Hutton (on film), Doris Day (on record), Cathy Rigby (on tour) and Bernadette Peters, who opened the current revival on Broadway in March 1999.
Only Mary Martin (birthplace: Weatherford, Texas), who went out on the road with the show in 1947 and did an acclaimed television version 10 years later, might have been able to match Miss McEntire twang for twang.
Yet Miss McEntire's affinity with the famous sharpshooter goes beyond the countrified lilt of her gingham-and-grits voice and a like fondness for diamond-stud earrings. "This is just me," she says. "Absolutely, totally me."
Miss McEntire sits in a sterile television studio conference room, a drab space brightened considerably by her shock of red hair, confident smile and chic black cowboy outfit, accentuated by a large gold heart pendant around her neck.
The performer played Annie Oakley once before in 1995 in "Buffalo Girls," a television version of Larry McMurtry's novel. It starred Anjelica Huston as Calamity Jane.
"It is so weird the similarities between Annie Oakley and myself," Miss McEntire says, warming to the subject as she rattles off comparisons.
"We both grew up in a man's world. We both had responsibilities at an early age. We both love entertainment: to be entertained and to entertain. And I think we both fall in love very seriously openheartedly, head over heels, without being guarded."
These days, that love centers on the two main men in her life husband Narvel Blackstock, who started out as Miss McEntire's steel-guitar player in 1980, and their 10-year-old son, Shelby.
"Shelby is my sunshine. If I had to choose between my career and Shelby and Narvel, it would be Shelby and Narvel," Miss McEntire says. "That wasn't the way it was before. My first marriage, I chose my career without even a second thought.
"But luckily, that's why I went with Narvel, because he is 'my cake and eat it, too.' I get to have my career, and I get to have a family life. He travels with me all the time. We are always together.
"When we both got divorced from other people, we thought, 'What's the deal with marriage?' Until we decided to have Shelby. That's when the sanctity of marriage came back in. Now it's the greatest thing in the world."
Miss McEntire brings to her work the same fierce dedication she brings to her family, and she leaves nothing to chance.
"Reba is a pro in the sense that she goes home and does her homework," says Graciela Daniele, who directed the revival of "Annie Get Your Gun."
"I noticed in rehearsals that if something is not working or she doesn't quite get it, the next day she does. And that can only happen when you go home after rehearsal and you practice and you practice and you practice."
That determination always was there, even as a child, born of the need to help her family earn a living from their cattle.
"We'd be up in the hills, and they were brushy with thorns and briars," Miss McEntire recalls. "Daddy would say, 'Get up there and find some cattle and bring them to the road and to the pens' 8,000 acres that wasn't sectioned off very much. You got lost. You got turned around. And you would get into a thicket, and your horse would be so tangled up in briars that you would have to walk him out. And you would be covered in briars, too."
Performing was a bonus that eventually became the main event.
"I wasn't the oldest. I wasn't the youngest… . I was the third kid. So you fight for attention. I was always wanting attention, and that's how I got it by singing," Miss McEntire says.
Millions of records, CDs, videos and a Grammy or two later, she has decided to come to Broadway. Even before Miss Peters opened on Broadway two years ago, there was talk about who eventually would replace her. Miss McEntire was high on the list.
Because of her busy schedule the woman tours more than just about any country star it took a while to work out the deal and for Miss McEntire to convince herself as well.
"I kept saying, 'No, no, no.' I don't want to be in one place for five months. I haven't done that for 10 years, not since Shelby was born when I was off the road for five months. And then I looked over at Narvel, and he said, 'This is written for you.' "
Miss McEntire started working on the script and the music last September. She put her scenes on tape. She listened to recordings by Miss Merman and Miss Peters.
"It helps to go over it right before I go to bed," she says with a laugh. "Momma always told me my diction was very important. I sing different than I talk. I sing correctly, while I don't always talk correctly because I do have that southeastern Oklahoma twang. But when I sing, it disappears, except when I sing a comedy song like 'You Can't Get a Man With a Gun.' I sing it like I talk."

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