Friday, August 17, 2018

Calamity Jane

Review by John Lombard

“I kissed a girl” isn't normally a song in Calamity Jane, but it provided the perfect capper to this alive and entertaining reinvigoration of a loveworn but rollicking musical.

Starting life as a hastily assembled Neglected Musicals production by director Richard Carroll, this production of Calamity Jane stars Virginia Gay as a more butch and down-to-earth Calamity than fans of the Doris Day musical will expect.

Gay is rough and tough and cheeky, the sunny centre of a madcap ensemble capable of nimble physical comedy.

The production deliberately calls attention to its own theatricality, with the audience seated on the stage doubling as the crowd of Wild West saloon the Golden Garter, currently beset by a kink in the supply of beautiful female entertainment.

Deliberately awful fake moustaches set the tone for madcap, goofy comedy that dispensed with any pretence at a fourth wall.  One actor playing multiple parts is praised as a performer vital to a small ensemble, and there is a sly reminder that the audience perched on the stage are sitting there because they opted to pay extra.

One of these audience members was tasked with delivering the bartender’s lines, and his deadpan star turn delighted the audience.

The frequent audience interaction felt like highly polished stand-up comedy, with pre-prepared bits refined during the show’s tour tailored in the moment to the audience response. In one stand-out sequence, a scene was stopped and restarted after a disruption by an audience member trying to get in late, before it was all revealed to be planned.  This adroitly delivered gag showcased the brilliant comic timing of the ensemble.

The wheezy plot was spiced up by a stuffing of topical references and jokes, including one brutal attack on Donald Trump during the song “Men!”, and a welcome local nod to the Canberra audience in a joke about the Canberra tram.

Calamity’s initial chemistry with intended love interest Wild Bill Hickock (Anthony Gooley) was unsatisfying, especially when compared to her sizzle with ultra-femme chanteuse Katie Brown (Laura Bunting).

A post-show coda in the foyer included the characters belting out songs from Madonna and Katy Perry, with ‘I kissed a girl’ including the peck the audience was hungry for.

Calamity Jane is a musical constrained by a prescribed ending that has Calamity (partially) conform to Hickock’s chauvinistic expectations, but within the limit of the script the cast do a good job of drawing out the musical’s gay subtext - eating cake, and having it too.

The free-spirited (and silly) fun was balanced by a surprisingly moving second act, and asking the audience to stand for a wedding was a clever strategy for securing a standing ovation each night.

Calamity Jane’s songs are not amazing, but the musical has a resonance demonstrated by the pile-on of audience members trying to get a selfie with Virginia Gay after the show.

This worn-out saloon of a musical is stuffed past capacity with verve and energy, showing that there’s life in this old girl yet.