Whip crack away! The Deadwood Stage has made a very special trip down from Sydney to deliver this rollicking hit production of Calamity Jane to the musical-loving theatregoers of Melbourne.
Scouts have ridden ahead with news of the brilliance of this daffy delight, and the current Melbourne season of Calamity Jane sold out before it even opened. Lucky indeed are the forward-planning ticket holders, who are set for an absolute treat. Director Richard Carroll capably demonstrates the riches to be mined when a traditional musical is infused with fun while the material is still respected.
The 2016 presentation of Calamity Jane by Neglected Musicals was so successful it spawned a 2017 season of its own at Hayes Theatre, and this sold-out season was so successful it led to the current tour, which plays half a dozen venues.
Tinkering with the presentation of a musical is a tricky balancing act. Results vary from the hilarious off-Broadway inventiveness of The Robber Bridegroom to the woefully unfunny misjudgment of The Production Company’s The Pirates of Penzance. As mentioned above, the success of the venture all comes down to respecting the original material.
Blessed with a tight team of terrific talents, Carroll laces the performance with meta theatrical gags, internal running jokes and unbridled physical comedy, yet returns time and again to the beating heart of the relatively simple piece of musical comedy. Falling hard for those that show her kindness, calamitous Calamity learns to love herself before realising the identity of her secret love.
At the centre of the production’s success, particularly in its respectful treatment of the material, is the extraordinary performance of Virginia Gay in the title role. Gay fairly beams with love for her craft, her fellow actors and the audience. Gay’s ability to switch from winking humour to touching authenticity is incredible, and she grounds the show with her unabashed vulnerability and affectingly tender sentiment. In a performance for the ages, Gay nails the singing, acting and comedy of the irrepressible Calamity, bringing her roaring to life with the sweetest undercurrents of humanity.
The conversion of chorus hymn “Black Hills of Dakota” to soulful torch song is just one of the ingenious moves from musical director Nigel Ubrihien, and Gay pulls it off marvelously, extending the depth of her talents by accompanying herself on ukulele. Carroll cannot resist layering the subtext of act opener “A Woman’s Touch” on the top; Gay takes a simple charm song and turns it into a three-act play as Calamity explores her attraction for pretty new housemate Katie Brown.
In the guise of a bar musician, Ubrihien plays piano on stage all night, occasionally contributing vocals as well. The cast inhabits Cameron Mitchell’s choreography to the point that it seems improvised as the show unfolds.
Lauren Peters’ design has a deliberately rough and ready feel, which ably supports the impromptu feel of the frenetic performances. Variation in looks for actors playing more than character are well realised, and Calamity’s eleventh hour transformation draws all the right reactions. Lighting designer Trent Suidgeest creates a festive vibe with strings of tiny warm globes, which create a wonderful sense of intimacy in the Fairfax Studio. It must be noted that incredible use is made of the various levels and entrances of the space, with the cast playing out not only to all angles of the curved auditorium but also to the brave lucky people seated on stage.
In a choice piece of casting, Christina O’Neill lands the cheeky tone of the production perfectly, moving seamlessly from occasional ringmaster to female or male chorus member, and from local sweetheart Susan to vampish diva Adelaide Adams.
Laura Bunting enhances the simpering sweetness of Katie, avoiding melodrama with sharply focused sincerity. Bunting’s compelling delivery of Katie’s big stage number “Keep It Under Your Hat” brims with the sense of improvisation that is a hallmark of this staging. Bunting also reveals a polished level of flair on piano.
Anthony Gooley brings an authentic, down to earth masculinity to Wild Bill Hickock, throwing in just enough insecurity to keep the character sympathetic and free of caricature.
Rob Johnson proves a lively young comedian as song and dance man Francis Fryer. Matthew Pearce brings a smoldering touch of matinee idol handsomeness to lovelorn Lt. Danny Gilmartin. Pearce and Bunting deftly avoid the saccharine possibilities of Danny and Katie’s love duet “Love You Dearly.” Tony Taylor maintains peak energy as frazzled inn proprietor Henry Miller.
Best wishes to those who already have tickets. To everyone else, book now for the Melbourne encore season of Calamity Jane!
Photos: John McRae (note: photos show Sheridan Harbridge, not Christina O’Neill)