Music Theatre

Calamity Jane review [Melbourne]

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!

Calamity Jane plays a sold out season at Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne until 25 March 2018, where it will play an encore season 12-23 December 2018.

Photos: John McRae (note: photos show Sheridan Harbridge, not Christina O’Neill)

Categories: Music Theatre, Reviews

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8 replies »

  1. After seeing this show tonight from what should have been restricted view seats in the front row I await your review of this return season, as I did not see it as you did. The inclusion of the on stage tables 1 and 2 compromises the viewing of 50 or more patrons.

    As a blue rinse set, I missed an orchestra too.

    • Sorry to hear you had a bad experience, Cain.
      I’m not reviewing Calamity Jane again as this is basically a repeat of the season from earlier in the year. I agree that they do need to make the different style of production a bit clearer – there is an expectation attached to seeeing a musical at the Arts Centre that is different to seeing one at a smaller venue eg Sydney’s Hayes Theatre.
      It’s a shame about the restricted view seats. I know this advice is a bit late now, but make sure you say something to front of house management next time, there often is a way they can help.

      • Simon, I too have become a victim of the peculiar seating configuration for Calamity Jane at the Fairfax theatre.
        I purchased an A reserve ticket in row B, albeit towards the penultimate extremity of the row, but all I could see over the heads of the people seated on stage was the top half of the characters. I missed all of the floor work. There was no warning or classification on the ticket that it would be restricted view. I felt for the people in the extremities of Row A who had no view at all….amazing !
        I understand the row A extremity seats were classified as Restricted View but no view !… comparison, looking around a pole at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s seems like a premium seat now. As the house was full to overflowing there were no alternative seats on offer for that performance but i am currently in discussion with the Arts Centre.
        I’m wondering when setting up this seating classification that they didn’t figure in that once people were sitting in the stage seats, especially tall people, that the sight lines of peripheral seats would be so severely restricted.
        If some good can come out of this I urge those sitting close to the stage during The Comedy Theatre season to enquire about the sight lines beforehand.
        Despite these reservations the show itself was a wonderful contemporary interpretation of this much loved musical.
        Presenting it in a music hall format, where one almost boos the villain. is a clever way of getting around the now politically incorrect aspects of the original book. Maybe this is what they should do with Annie Get Your Gun so we can hear that wonderful score on stage again ?

      • Sorry to hear about this experience, Edward.
        It is disappointing for what is otherwise a strong and unique production be marred in this way. I see that they are using on stage seating for the Comedy Theatre season, and rows A and B of the stalls are at normal price. Ticket holders for this section shoddy definitely beware!
        I too would love to see other musicals receive the same treatment. Annie Get Your Gun is an ideal choice. I think that Spamalot (at the Hayes in 2019) may be the next show to be done in this madcap/reduced/music hall style. Will be interesting to see which 2019 shows end up touring.

  2. Hayes first use of stage seating featured in Cabaret starring Paul Capsis. I attended the first Preview and the only available seats were stage seats at little tables. Row A extremities were probably therefore somewhat restricted, although for us onstage, we had the stars sitting at our table in various scenes n ended up loving the experience. Calamity though with no raised performance space means the seating onstage is at same level of the performance space and whilst probably fun to sit onstage, would be terribly annoying for those side seats in the front rows!

    • Audience members in the stage seating definitely have the best deal. I will have to try that myself at some point! Hopefully the sightlines for the extended season at Comedy Theatre will be manageable.

      • Thanks for the Spamalot reminder Simon. I am going in April 2019 and will definitely be pre-checking the sight lines on my existing allocation. I have just looked at the Comedy seating plan for Calamity and I agree I would be very concerned with extremity seats in quite a few of the front rows. I think at least they could restrict the on stage seating to the rear of the stage or sell the front side seats as restricted view.I think the producer’s full disclosure on this is a bit shaky.

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