Who’d have thought Calamity Jane would hold up so well in 2017? The dated gender politics and awkward proto-feminist agenda of Sammy Fain and Paul Webster’s 1953 movie about real-life frontierswoman Martha Jane Canary could sink the show without trace in more enlightened times. But thanks to a stellar turn from Virginia Gay in the title role, a brilliant no-weak-links supporting cast and inspired, side-splitting direction from Richard Carroll, this tiny jewel of a production hits every note square between the eyes and comes with enough energy and heart to drive the Pony Express all the way ‘cross Injun territory and back again.
Viginia Gay and Tony Taylor in Calamity Jane. Photos © John Mccrae
Written as a filmic vehicle for Doris Day – the stage musical followed in 1961 – the show follows the fortunes of Calamity, a hard talkin’, sharp shootin’ larrikin from South Dakota whose exploits ‘whip-crack-awaying’ the Deadwood Stage have a habit of being blown up out of all proportions. Dressing like a man, ‘Calam’ spars with local gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok, while secretly longing for the arms of a handsome cavalry lieutenant. When wannabe actress Katie Brown comes into her life – a scene with a famously gay subtext – and smartens up her personal appearance as well as her cabin, the menfolk’s eyes are opened to Calamity’s charms and she finally gets her man – though not the one she thought she was in love with.
The miracle of Richard Carroll’s production for One Eyed Man Productions is how perfectly he subverts the idea that all a woman needs to do is dress purdy in order to land a husband. Every time a character is about to fall into the black hole of gender stereotyping – and the show comes with plenty of pitfalls – the cast turn it around with either a sly nod and a wink, or by penetrating to the heart of the drama, exploring the social truth of the times with insight and pathos. But Carroll has also astutely realised that Calamity Jane is all about preconceptions, and not just in the leading role. Every character misjudges or is misjudged, from the simple assumption that a Francis might be a Frances, to the more complicated sexual appeal that a strong woman might hold for characters of either sex (and vice versa). Learning that no book should be judged by its cover is what this show is all about – a lesson for all people and all times.
Breaking the fourth wall with abandon, it’s staged almost as a show within a show. The actors constantly interact with the audience, one lucky spectator even gets press-ganged into playing the barman (they are only eight players and need a ninth, we are told). Every shortcoming of a ‘small scale, tight budget’ show is sent up to the hilt with razor-sharp ad-libs galore. This kind of semi-improvisation can so easily fall flat, but thanks to the discipline and skill of the cast and a superhuman effort of directorial judgement it’s hysterically funny. Carroll is aided by Lauren Peters’ simply, yet perfectly dressed saloon set, perfectly lit by Trent Suidgeest, while Cameron Mitchell’s tongue-in-cheek choreography raises the requisite laughs in number after number.
Viginia Gay, Tony Taylor and Sheridan Harbridge in Calamity Jane.
The show was first semi-staged at the Hayes as part of their eye-opening ‘Neglected Musicals’ programme, and it was Virginia Gay’s fascinating interpretation of Calamity that led the producers to take it to a full staging. Well, Gay is back, and turns in a performance the like of which you too rarely see in musical theatre. Awkward, shy, naïve, insecure, socially inept – yes, she’s all of these, but she’s also strong, boastful, ornery, as well as honest, touching, sexy, and very, very funny. Blessed with comic timing, imagination and an inventive wit, she bursts onto the tiny Hayes stage and fills the theatre with her big-hearted, larger-than-life characterisation.
Gay can have you in stitches one moment, the next your heart breaks for what she can’t see when it’s right in front of her face. When she duets with Katie in A Woman’s Touch – oh, yes, she can sing, too – the sexual charge is palpable, but it’s never simply a good old-fashioned lesbian love affair, this is the kind of confusion of sexual identity – on both women’s parts – that real people encounter in real life. Her turn-on-a-dime hellcat moment and the skilful transition into the realisation of Secret Love reveals an actor at the very height of her powers. If this doesn’t win her a Helpmann nomination, I’ll eat my chaps!
The rest of the hard-working cast are equally spot on. Anthony Gooley’s Wild Bill Hickok is a perfect match for Gay. Arrogant and smart-alecky, he captures the character’s emotional immaturity, but also delivers a performance of great warmth and honesty come the volte-face of the second half. Vocally he’s easy on the ear offering a subtle, country update in a lovely rendition of Higher than a Hawk. He’s neatly contrasted with Matthew Pearce’s handsome, lyrically sung, yet emotionally two-dimensional Lieutenant Danny. The scene where the two men squabble over who gets to take Katie to the ball (and who gets saddled with Calamity) is beautifully finessed.
Viginia Gay in Calamity Jane.
Sheridan Harbridge is a real livewire as Susan, the saloon’s ‘entertainer’-cum-hooker. At times brilliantly off-book, she’s a marvellous comedian – her excruciatingly bad magic show had tears rolling down my face for minutes afterwards. She’s equally enthralling as an air-kissing, preening and utterly fake Adelaide Adams. Laura Bunting as Katie charts the journey from starry-eyed but talentless dresser to toast of Deadwood in style, her burgeoning relationships with Calamity and Danny ringing perfectly and painfully true.
As the scrawny, lip-licking impresario Henry Miller, Tony Taylor is comedy gold. His puffed-up, high-octane, always on the verge of disaster showman is also an object lesson in character acting. Rob Johnson is equally watchable as Francis Fryer, the hapless actor who’s booked as a woman and forced to strut his unconvincing stuff in a magnificently bad rendition of Hive Full of Honey. Not only can he sing and act, he can – and does – play the tuba as well. But then, many of the cast turn out to be able to play the odd bit of guitar – hell, Gay even gives us a blast on the trombone. A musical highlight is the company rendition of The Black Hills of Dakota, begun by Calamity as a touchingly simple folk song and building to an a cappella anthem to the magnificent isolation of Indian country.
Musical Director Nigel Ubrihien works wonders at the onstage saloon piano – any wish for more instruments is soon overcome. His taste in deciding when to play it straight and when to offer something less ‘musical theatre’ and more ‘natural’ is impeccable. Not only that, it’s all done acoustically, and is so much the better for it. If only more companies realised that the Hayes works perfectly well without the need for extra decibels, and that an actor singing with heart and honesty reaches the parts that amplification seldom can.
I’ll admit I went into this show with low expectations, and how wrong I was – but, as this show demonstrates, that’s preconceptions for you. This is the best small-scale musical I’ve seen in years. If you want an intimate night at the theatre where you’ll laugh and cry out loud, no need to go all the way to the Windy City, just hop the Deadwood Stage and let Calamity Jane transport you to musical theatre heaven.
Calamity Jane is at Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, until September 30, 2018, before touring to Melbourne