CALAMITY JANE, One Eyed Man Productions in association with Neglected Musicals and Hayes Theatre Co at the Hayes Theatre, 8 March-9 April 2017. Photography by John Mcrae - above: Tony Taylor and Virginia Gay; below: Taylor Gay and Sheridan Harbridge
You could love this production for all sorts of reasons and all would be equally valid. It’s joyous, it’s touching, it’s beautifully performed and brilliantly put together. It’s silly as a wheel, it’s old fashioned, it’s up to the minute. It’s as superficial as you like and it’s as deep as you care to make it. And, of course, it’s a smash hit – start lobbying now for a return season and for it to visit your city.
This Calamity Jane is at once faithful to its 1950s roots and looser, wilder and more wicked than could be devised by any but a spectacular creative team and cast. Shattering the fourth wall and most other theatrical conventions from the moment the audience is summonsed into the auditorium, it’s witty, funny and full of itself and entirely beguiling.
Calam’ started out as so many movies did, as a one studio’s answer to another studio’s big hit. In this instance Warner Bros wanted an answer to MGM’s 1950 smash Annie Get Your Gun. The latter starred Betty Hutton and although she was mega, she was in the end no match for Doris Day whose buckskin-clad, rootin’ tootin’ frontier gal was simply unforgettable.
Calamity Jane is famously enduring among movie and musical fans as one of Doris Day’s greatest movie performances and also for the Oscar-winning song Secret Love. The stage musical happened along some ten years after the screen version and with added songs (Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster) it was also a hit.
Whatever its original creators’ conscious intentions, Calamity Jane has come to represent all manner of dreams and ideas, much the same way and for the same subversive reasons as Some Like It Hot. Both are loved not only for their overall magic but for what can be read into their story lines of mistaken identity, gender and sexual misunderstandings, cross dressing and star-crossed love. In the fabled Marilyn Monroe comedy, Osgood Fielding III (Joe E Brown) says to his paramour (Jack Lemmon) when he’s revealed as a man, “Nobody’s perfect.” It was an immortal line and also echoed much of what had happened five years before in Calamity Jane.
This production, directed magnificently by Richard Carroll and choreographed by Cameron Mitchell, plays with the coyness and unconscious sexual frissons of the 1950s, while giving knowing nods to how it can be read and understood, or interpreted, in 2017 with a sexual fluidity and humour which are both credible and gracefully realised.
In case you ain’t never seen it, the story goes that when Francis Fryer (Rob Johnson) arrives in dead-end Deadwood to appear at the Golden Garter Saloon, its proprietor Henry Miller (Tony Taylor) is aghast to discover she is a he and even in a wig and corsets, just won’t cut it. Calam’ (Virginia Gay) finds herself calamitously tasked with going to Chicago and bringing back the figment of all wet dreams – Miss Adelaide Adams. Of course she can.
Meanwhile, Miss Adams (Sheridan Harbridge) is off to Paree and her maid Katy Brown (Laura Bunting) is left with her discarded costumes and a dream of the stage. Calam’ believes she’s actually the real thing. Katy decides to give her aspirations a go and Calam’ returns to Deadwood in triumph with her star in tow.
More mixed messages and motives abound and all are caught up in the orthodox dream of the Old West: you can reinvent yourself, pursue your dreams and make a new life – if you try. For Calam’ this means discovering there is more to life than being kinda in love with the Lieutenant (Matthew Pearce) while arguing endlessly with her best friend Wild Bill Hickok (Anthony Gooley). And then there’s that gosh-darn chemistry between her and Katy that survives not only an outbreak of petticoats but also a major session of cabin cleaning and home decor.
Set designer Lauren Peters and lighting designer Trent Suidgeest have drolly transformed the Hayes into a fair facsimile of a ramshackle saloon by means of simple drapes, timberwork and an upright piano (where musical director Nigel Ubrihien bangs out the tunes and performs a solo miracle). Being the Wild West, there are no newfangled microphones or other trickery and the company sings and plays it like it is.
And play it they do. From the raucous “The Deadwood Stage” and jaunty “Just Blew In From The Windy City”, to an exquisite a cappella song of yearning in “Black Hills of Dakota”; and Calam’s big moment of revelation – “Secret Love” – they also make much of the lesser known numbers all stirred up with some wonderful nonsense: improv, in (Sydney) jokes and ad libs with the audience.
Virginia Gay is the dynamic centre of the piece, and her Calam’ is as touching and real as she is preposterous and funny. It’s a glorious performance. However, the rest of the actors are right up there with her. Sheridan Harbridge could fashion an award-winning performance out of the back of a cornflake packet and does so in her three roles. Anthony Gooley is also scintillating as the saturnine yet sexily silly Wild Bill. Laura Bunting gives a delicious Miss Katy taking her on an intelligent and seamless journey and Rob Johnson is similarly persuasive as Francis with an “I”.
As the scraggy impresario of the even more dubious Golden Garter – whose main attraction until Adelaide Adams is his “niece” Susan (Harbridge again) – Tony Taylor makes a long overdue and virtuoso return to the comic stage. Matthew Pearce is somewhat stuck with the handsome hunk role of the army lieutenant but makes the absolute most of it and sings like a fallen angel.
All in all, however, everything you may already have heard about this Calamity Jane is true. It’s one for the ages and the knowledge that they got it together in just two weeks of rehearsal is mind-blowing. It’s destined to follow in the dancing shoes of its Hayes stablemate Sweet Charity and although your chances of a ticket for this season are worse than poor, it must come back. Recommended.