Sunday, August 19, 2018

CALAMITY JANE




Calamity Jane.

Adapted by Ronald Hammer 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. Directed by Richard Carroll. Musical director Nigel Ubrihien. Choreographer Cameron Mitchell. Production design. Lauren Peters. Lighting designer Trent Suidgeest. Sound designer and operator Camden Young. Assistant director Dash Kruck. Associate lighting designer Benjamin Brockman. Wig designer Lauren Proitti.Une Eyed Man Productions in association with Neglected Musicals and Hayes Theatre Company. The Playhouse. Canberra Theatre Centre. August 16 – 19 2018.


Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

Lauren Peter's design for Calamity Jane. Photo. Jeff Busby
What a whip-cracking show this is! Why would a professional company want to stage a Fifties musical about characters in the backwoods of nineteenth century America? What relevance could that possibly have for Australian audiences of today. Where to start? Well, let’s start with a fabulous production of a classic musical for starters. Then there are fabulous performances that fling this musical from the Fifties fair and square into any time where people live out their everyday lives, their hopes, their fears, their dreams, their struggles and their relationships with the people in their unique community. Then there is the fabulous vision for this revival by director, Richard Carroll who has brought his inspired production of Calamity Jane to Canberra’s lucky strike audiences. Virginia Gay’s fabulous and utterly extraordinary performance of gun-toting, straight talking, tough tomboy Calamity Jane whipcracking and straightshooting her way through an unwitting and secretly suppressed femininity. Hers may be the lynchpin to this brilliant show’s success, but she is supported by a superb cast who bring this tale of the backwoods to hilarious and poignant life for today’s audiences.


Anthony Gooley as Wild Bill Hickock,
 Sheridan Harbridge as Susan,
Virginia Gay as Calamity Jane
Rob Johnson as Francis Farmer, and Laura Bunting
Photo by John McRae
The success of Carroll’s production lies in its authenticity. It is the characterization that lifts Calamity jane above the stock revival of a musical. Rather than simply remembering the songs and paying only scant critical attention to the performances and the script, audiences are drawn into a world, so often fantasized, and yet made startlingly real by the actors. Gay’s Calamity is a complex conundrum, conditioned by her environment to take on a man’s characteristics, and yet struggling to come to grips with feminine longings and emotions. Her momentary attraction to Katie Brown (Lauren Bunting) heightens the confusion, which is also compounded by her romantic love for the handsome Lt. Danny Kilmartin (Matthew Pierce). Anthony Gooley is no Howard Keel as Wild Bill Hickock. He makes Hickock a straightshooting,no fooling backwoods hombre of the real Wild West. Every character is the real McCoy. There is the loud rambunctious Henry Miller (Tony Taylor) who runs the Golden Garter Saloon. Sheridan Harbridge doubles as Miller’s “niece” Susan, and Chicago chanteuse, the idol of every hotblooded male’s heart, Adelaide Adams, whom Katie is impersonating when mistaken for Adelaide by Calamity. Rob Johnson gives a perfectly pitched and comical performance as entertainer Francis Farmer, at times appearing to channel Michael Crawford’s Frank from Some Mothjers Do Have Them.

Much of the appeal in Canberra’s Playhouse arose from the show’s intimacy and the company’s occasional clever ad libbing, versatile instrument playing and improvised engagement with the audience. One poor unsuspecting audience member who has joined those seated on the stage as patrons of the saloon is roped in as Joe the Barman. It’s a deft and enjoyable piece of audience participation that always brings a laugh at the good natured victim’s expense The tight ensemble of eight including musical director, Nigel Ubrihien on piano kept the show rollicking along with old favourites “The Deadwood Stage”, It’s Harry I’m Planning to Marry, Windy City, My Secret Love and The Black Hills of Dakota, sung with gusto and tantalizing harmonies.

Back Row: Nigel Ubrihien, Tony Turner ,Rob Johnson
 Sheridan Harbridge/. Front Row: Anthoney, Virginia Gay,
 Laura Bunting and Natthew Pierce. Photo: John McRae
Gay’s performance is a tour de force of comic timing, ribald, raunchy bravura, combined with homespun na├»ve innocence and knock your socks off rough toughness. Hers is the definitive Calamity, giving Doris Day’s mantle a good old dusting. I’m a real fan of Doris Day’s Calamity, but Gay turns Calamity inside out, spins her around and gives us a living, breathing real life character. Here is an unforgettable performance.
The last stagecoach has left Canberra for other towns and I urge anyone to do what is necessary to get a tickt for this fun-filled, crazy, happy and superbly staged ride. If I can’t get a genuine Australian musical of this calibre, then I wouldn’t want to miss out on this sharp shooting revival that had audiences on their feet for the wedding finale and a production that knocked them out of their seats.