BWW REVIEW: CALAMITY JANE Is A Fun Filled, Feel Good Night Of Energetic and Entirely Engaging Entertainment
Friday 10th March 2017, Hayes Theatre Potts Point
Virginia Gay is completely captivating in a compelling performance of CALAMITY JANE. Following a successful reading in 2016 as part of the Neglected Musicals program, this rarely performed work, made famous by the 1953 movie of the same name, based on the life of Martha Jane Canary, is thankfully being revived to delight Hayes audiences.
For those that may not be familiar with Ronald Hanmer and Phil Park's rarely performed musical adaptation (lyrics: Paul Francis Webster, Music: Sammy Fain) of Charles K. Freeman's stage play or James O'Hanlon's Warner Bros. movie starring Doris Day, Calamity Jane is a rough American frontierswoman and scout. She's masculine, unladylike, known for her tendency to adopt men's clothes, tell somewhat tall stories about her exploits as a sure shot and a fearless rider, whilst having a generous, sociable and kind-hearted nature beneath the gruff exterior. Centred around the Golden Gate saloon bar in Deadwood, South Dakota, Calamity helps out publican Henry Miller (Tony Taylor) when he is met with the town's displeasure at engaging the geeky young, and decidedly male, vaudeville performer Francis Fryer instead of the curvy, female Frances Fryer, to appear at the Saloon. The masculine Calamity, or "Calam" as she often referred has a degree of innocence and ignorance to many of the ways of the world as she's ensued femininity in favour of adventure for most of her life but remains a mainstay of the Deadwood community and a firm friend to its inhabitants.
Director Richard Carroll has opted to bring the audience into the Golden Gate saloon in a night that takes immersive theatre to a whole new level when on stage seating is paired with the fabulously cheeky cast that are wonderfully adept at reading and engaging the audience. Production designer Lauren Peters has set up six tables with assorted chairs to flank the sides of the performance space which is completed with an upright piano that provides the bulk of the accompaniment (Nigel Ubrihien, Musical Director), bar and small stage, complete with red velvet curtain. Swathes of fabric hang from the rafters along with an assortment of lights dress up the raw timber walls of a remote small town saloon. Peters inventive costuming helps round out the characters, allowing for easy identification and quick changes. Already striking an imposing figure, Gay is transformed into Calamity with grimy shirt and men's work trousers complete with low slung belted pouch and ever-present wraps of leather in her hand whilst her hair is in a messy pile atop her head and her face bears the marks of days of dirt and grime gathered on the ride protecting the stagecoach. Calam's masculinity is contrasted by Henry's "niece" Susan's (Sheridan Harbridge) flamboyant blonde curls and bowed blouses and Katie Brown's demure good girl image of long skirts, neat hair and a fresh faced innocence. Tailored waist coats and bow ties help separate the gentler men, Henry and Francis from the rough tough Wild Bill Hickock (Anthony Gooley) and military man Lieutenant Danny Gilmartin (Matthew Pearce) who strike imposing rugged figures.
Whilst Carroll has kept an essentially old world feel to the work, he, and his team, have artfully included contemporary references and there is a delightful feel of spontaneity to the work. There is an unashamed acknowledgement of theatre tropes, further drawing the audience in to the experience. There is a balance of vaudevillian slapstick, popular at the time, and genuine honesty and underplayed emotion that is presented in a recognisable manner to engage the audience and elicit sympathy. The presentation also reminds the audience that the work was incredibly bold for its time, expressing feminist ideas and hints of homosexuality, with potentially Sapphic behaviour and an incredibly camp publican and travelling performer.
Virginia Gay is outstanding as Calamity. Whilst I'm yet to see a character Gay can't capture, body and soul, this role feels like it was custom made for endearing and engaging actress. She captures the nuance of the character that outwardly appears rough and tough and not interested in the flirting, flouncing and fineries that excite Susan but is quietly hurt when she's constantly mistaken for a male, particularly in the eyes of her unrequited love. Gay wonderful ability to present a raw honesty, in keeping with accounts of Calamity that indicated she was a generous and kind hearted woman, ready to defend and protect the vulnerable. She has a beautiful physicality, capturing the masculine movement Calamity picked up running in a man's world whilst showing an endearing awkwardness when trying to be ladylike. She remains present throughout, even when observing the interaction from side stage or nestled amongst the audience and her facial reactions are priceless. Vocally Gay is breathtaking. Her husky depth with a sultry jazz tone lends itself to a country lilt and is delicious as she infuses her songs with an understanding and a connection presenting a range from the comic Windy City to deeply emotional My Secret Love.
As the flamboyant Susan and the over the top Adelaide Adams, Sheridan Harbridge is a perfect fit. Harbridge's wickedly cheeky personality sits well as the hostess of the Golden Gate saloon and her unabashed confidence suits the music hall object of lust, played with a dismissive superiority of a diva bored with what America has to offer. She has a freshness and freedom that has the audience guessing as to whether she's taken the scene to a new place on the spur of the moment and she is so in tune with Gay and the rest of the cast to deliver wonderful comic timing and whip smart responses. Like Gay, Harbrdge's solid vocals work well for the unamplified performance and her bold soprano is utilised in the ensemble work whilst Harbridge expresses a devilish glint in her eye as she dons comical disguises to blend in with the men.
Laura Bunting returns to the Hayes stages in another delicate, feminine role as Katie Brown, Adelaide Adam's assistant who is bought to Deadwood on the misunderstanding that she is the cigarette card model that the men have been lusting after. Whilst having a less detailed character than that of Susan or Calamity, Bunting ensures that her Katie is presented as contrast to the bolder women whilst having a genuine sensitivity and loyalty. She presents Katie's heart-warming bright eyed enthusiasm and innocence along with the big town manners and ladylike grace that Deadwood has been missing.
Rob Johnson is delightful as the awkward and timid Francis Fryer and the minor role of Doc Pierce. He presents Francis with a shy geekiness whilst harbouring a quiet strength of character. His turn in drag is hilarious as is his fretful fear at what the townsfolk will do when they realise Calamity hasn't delivered the famous Adelaide Adams.
As owner of the Golden Gate, Tony Taylor captures the nervous businessman Henry Miller with a charm and touch of oiliness as he tries to hoodwink his audience following his error at checking spelling. He captures the jittery older man with a comic expression without diving too deep into caricature, instead showing evidence of a fragility and fear that he could lose everything if Calamity cannot save him.
Matthew Pearce presents Calamity's love interest, the handsome Lieutenant Danny Gilmartin with the confidence recognisable as a man that knows they are good looking. His dismissive arrogance while Calamity tends to his wounds and displays that she is clearly interested adds to the later betrayal to promote the audience to further sympathise with Calamity and be grateful that she doesn't end up with such a cad. Pearce's portrayal of the Danny serves to further the story's message that looks aren't everything and what is in one's heart is more important.
Anthony Gooley presents Wild Bill Hickock as a contrast to Danny, capturing a similar roughness to Calamity whilst perpetually teasing her about her stories. Gooley and Gay present the pairs gentle rivalry with a undertone of admiration. Gooley also conveys that Bill has asensitivity and winsome nostalgia which is also comes across in his vocals which are more restrained, particularly in the unamplified performance. Ignoring the absurdity of being able to romance Calamity so quickly after she's been devastated by the discovery of her friend and crush betraying her, and Bill's equally quick change in affection from Katie to Calamity, Gooley and Gay have a chemistry that helps cement the idea that the two rough diamonds are a perfect fit.
A thoroughly delightful performance, CALAMITY JANE is the Must See musical of 2017. Between the interaction, engaging performances, enigmatic cast and uplifting message, this is a heartwarming story of hope, happiness and rebellion, proving to people that you don't always need to fit in, and sometimes you have more fun living life to your own beat. Secure a ticket now, even take the chance of sitting in the thick of it at one of the stage tables.
Hayes Theatre Potts Point