Friday, August 17, 2018

Calamity Jane

Calamity Jane adapted by Ronald Hanmer and Phil Park, from the stage play by Charles K. Freeman, after Warner Bros. film written by James O’Hanlon.  Lyrics by Paul Francis Webster.  Music by Sammy Fain.

Presented by One Eyed Man Productions in association with Neglected Musicals & Hayes Theatre Co.  At Canberra Theatre Playhouse, August 16-19, 2018.

Director – Richard Carroll; Musical Director – Nigel Ubrihien; Choreographer – Cameron Mitchell; Production Designer – Lauren Peters; Lighting Designer – Trent Suidgeest; Sound designer and Operator – Camden Young; Wig Designer – Lauren Proitti

Tony Taylor as Henry Miller, Nigel Ubrihien on piano
Hayes Theatre Co: Calamity Jane 2018
Photo: Jeff Busby

Reviewed by Frank (Francis) McKone
August 16

With the intelligence and wit that would make a David Pope cartoon proud, Hayes Theatre’s Calamity Jane makes America Great Again, even outshining the original 1963 Broadway production (which you can still see on the eighth wonder of the modern world, Youtube, at ).  Carol Burnett’s Calamity was a comic performance par excellence; yet Virginia Gay, as directed by Richard Carroll takes us to a different level of interpretation.

Anthony Gooley, Sheridan Harbridge, Virginia Gay, Rob Johnson, Laura Bunting
Hayes Theatre Co: Calamity Jane 2018
Photo: John McRae

In 1963 Calamity was undoubtedly a woman challenging the norms of women’s behaviour, gun-toting on stage, while immediately and publicly making up to and making out with Lt. Danny Gilmartin (Matthew Pearce 2018) at first contact.  And it’s true that her speech demanding that Katie Brown be given the chance to prove herself – “do it your own way” – was a convention-breaking message in the transition to new feminism from the 1950s’ ‘little woman’.  Culminating in her threat to put her fist down Wild Bill Hickock’s throat and peel him like a banana, Burnett was more than funny: her audience cheered in 1963. Did Doris Day match this in the original 1953 movie?

The next scene, A Woman’s Touch, gives us a clue to the Hayes Theatre approach.  Is it possible that Calamity is Trans – sexual, gender – or maybe L or at least Bi?  In 1963 a woman’s touch meant a comic transition for Calamity as Katie Brown dresses her prettily as a conventional woman (spot-on performance by Laura Bunting 2018).  In 2018, there are hints of a ‘touch’ of a different kind, as if Virginia Gay is playing a friendly joke upon her surprisingly appropriate real name.

Of course, in the end Calamity’s being unsure of her sexuality is resolved into a straight scene of three plainly male-female marriages, in the tradition of romantic comedy going back to Shakespeare’s parallel Much Ado About Nothing. Think of Benedick as Wild Bill Hickock: the men’s names are telling – try saying them out loud with emphasis on the last syllable (and a great performance by Anthony Gooley) and Beatrice as Calamity (a fascinating complex characterisation by Gay).

Foreground: Anthony Gooley, Virgina Gay, Laura Bunting, Matthew Pearce
Background: Nigel Ubrihien, Tony Taylor, Rob Johnson, Sheridan Harbridge
in Hayes Theatre Co: Calamity Jane 2018
Photo: John McRae

Then, the other clever aspect of this production, which I guess couldn’t have been done on old Broadway, was Richard Carroll and Lauren Peters’ involvement of the audience.  It was fun to have a few tables on stage in the Golden Garter Saloon, but the really clever bits were the references to Canberra as if it were Deadwood, and today’s politics squeezed in, including Donald Trump’s famous claim.

When we really thought an irate audience member was attempting to get in late, knocking furiously on a door near us, with an attendant firmly explaining no-one would be let in until the next song-and-dance number (which we supposed would cover the disturbance of his entry), the door was finally burst open to the horror of all on stage, to reveal Rob Johnson as a wonderful Francis (not Frances) Fryer, just off his stage coach and determined to persuade Henry Miller (a strong performance by Tony Taylor) to let him perform, and finally to marry his ‘niece’ Susan (an excellent performance by Sheridan Harbridge, who also played Adelaide Adams in Chicago and who was never going to perform in, shudder, Deadwood). 

And, more fool us, we were even found ourselves standing for a full house ovation! 

Except, of course, the quality of the acting, singing and dancing deserved it.  Hayes Theatre’s Calamity Jane is entertainment plus.  An essential part of the plus is musical director Nigel Ubrihien, with a terrific ragtime style on piano (better, I think, than the big-band production on Broadway – more ‘right’ for Deadwood’s Golden Garter, and a much more personal feel for this small-cast production).

More subtle in design and characterisaton, with not a shot fired on stage, this Calamity Jane is definitely not to be missed.

Virginia Gay as Calamity Jane