There truly is no business like show business, and the North Carolina Theatre knows how to put on what the late, great television-variety-show host Ed Sullivan called “A Really Big Shew!” First with Dreamgirls and now with Annie Get Your Gun, both brilliantly staged by Richard Stafford, NCT has opened its 25th anniversary season this year with a pair of magnificent musicals that is sure to add to the Raleigh, NC-based theater’s reputation as one of this nation’s leading regional theaters.

The North Carolina Theatre’s energetic and highly imaginative presentation of Peter Stone’s 1999 revision of Irving Berlin’s 1946 musical comedy stars Lauren Kennedy as world-famous sharpshooter Annie Oakley and Larry Gatlin as Oakley’s husband and now largely forgotten rival sharpshooter Frank Butler. Kennedy has a big Broadway voice, and it serves her well in a role created and played by the Grande Dame of the Broadway Stage herself, Ethel Merman. A former Raleigh actress and leading lady in several other NCT productions, Lauren Kennedy is now a rising star on the Great White Way, where she most recently played The Lady in the Lake in Monty Python’s Spamalot.

Kennedy can belt a big brassy song like Merman or caress the lyric of a love song until it purrs like a kitten curled up on a fine mink coat. Kennedy also can cut the fool like Lucille Ball playing Lucy Ricardo as the ultimate hick from the sticks, which Annie Oakley certainly was when she was discovered in a shooting match in Cincinnati, OH. Although Annie later learned to read and write and how to hobnob with the crowned heads of Europe during the transatlantic tours of “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show,” Lauren Kennedy always plays her as a diamond in the rough who has acquired a little more polish, but is still a sweet and simple country girl at heart.

Country music star Larry Gatlin has carved out a second career on Broadway since The Gatlin Brothers played their farewell tour in 1992. His Frank Butler is a cock of the walk, a handsome and somewhat full of himself ladies man with a legion of female admirers, until Annie Oakley appears on the scene and plucks a few of his tailfeathers by outshooting him in a series of exhibitions. Gatlin is a superb singer and comedian and matches Kennedy quip for quip in the comedy department, too. They make a fine pair, and their solos and duets are some of the finest ever heard in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium.

Triangle theater veteran Lamont Wade tops a strong supporting cast with a bold and brassy impersonation of crusty former U.S. Army scout and show business impresario Col. William F. Cody, a.k.a. Buffalo Bill. Also excellent are Robert Mark Kaufman as constantly conniving “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show” manager Charlie Davenport; Vinny Genna as Cody’s smug rival impresario Major Gordon Lillie, a.k.a. Pawnee Bill; and Marshall Factora as sage and wryly witty Sioux chief Sitting Bull. Wes Hart and Erin Henry are amusing as the youthful knife-throwing act of Tommy Keeler and Winnie Tate, and they also provide a nice romantic subplot; Dakota Hood, English Brewer Bernhardt, and Michael Raul Perez are cute as Annie’s two younger sisters and little brother; and Mario Martinez and Adrian Peña have an amusing scene on the train — no doubt added in 1999 — as “Wild West Show” performers Running Deer and Eagle Feather, who have a big laugh at a bigot’s expense.

But it is Kathy Calahan who makes the biggest comic splash as Frank Butler’s snooty, oh-so-Southern assistant and would-be girlfriend Dolly Tate, who despises Annie Oakley on sight and is dead set against her little sister Winnie marrying Tommy Keeler, who is half Native American. Calahan may sometimes overdo it, leaving no stick of scenery and no prop unchewed; but her outrageous antics as Dolly generally provoke bellylaughs.

Annie Get Your Gun director/choreographer Richard Stafford and associate director/choreographer Jonathan Stahl put a lot of snap, crackle, and pop into their frisky staging of “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better),” and other masterpieces from the Irving Berlin songbook. Musical director Edward G. Robinson and the full NCT orchestra make beautiful music together.

The show’s superlative sets and principal and specialty costumes, originally created for the Music Theatre of Wichita by scenic designer Bruce Brockman and costume designers Thomas G. Marquez and Debbie Roberts, and stylishly supplemented by NCT costumer Ann M. Bruskiewitz, make this marvelous musical look every bit as good as it sounds. The creative contributions of technical director Bill Yates, Jr., lighting designer John Bartenstein, hair/wig/makeup designer Patricia DelSordo, properties mistress Laurie Johnson, and sound designer Jonathan Parke also help make this gala production of Annie Get Your Gun, starring Lauren Kennedy and Larry Gatlin, not only a must-see musical but also an unquestioned highlight of the North Carolina Theatre’s distinguished 25-year history of producing outstanding home-grown Broadway musicals.

Note: The North Carolina Theatre has announced a special Silver Anniversary special ticket option for Annie Get Your Gun. Triangle theatergoers can purchase any orchestra or mezzanine seat for just $25 by calling Ticketmaster at 834-4000 or visiting [inactive 3/08], clicking “Find Tickets,” and choosing the “Silver Anniversary Special”option.

The North Carolina Theatre presents Annie Get Your Gun, starring Lauren Kennedy and Larry Gatlin, Tuesday-Friday, Feb. 26-29, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, March 1, at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, March 2, at 2 and 7 p.m. in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $31-$69, except $25 Silver Anniversary Special tickets (see above for details). NCT Box Office: 919/831-6950 or [inactive 4/08]. Group Discounts (up to 20 percent for groups of 10 or more): Telephone Donna Mullins at 919/831-6944, ext. 6944. Note: Arts Access, Inc.,will audio-describe the 2 p.m. March 1st performance. North Carolina Theatre: [inactive 4/08]. The Show (1946 original version): [inactive 4/08] (Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization) and (Internet Broadway Database). The Show (1999 Peter Stone revision): [inactive 4/08] (Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization) and (Internet Broadway Database). Internet Movie Database: Annie Oakley Foundation: [inactive 9/08]. “Little Miss Sure Shot”: The Saga of Annie Oakley (written by Caroline Kim-Brown for the National Endowment for the Humanities): Photos and Video of Annie Oakley (Botar Archives): Buffalo Bill Historical Center: [inactive 8/08]. Lauren Kennedy: (her officialweb site) and (Internet Broadway Database). Larry Gatlin: [inactive 6/08] (Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers) and (Internet Broadway Database).