It’s quite serendipitous that this production of Calamity Jane had its first preview on International Women’s Day. Based on the real life adventures of American frontierswoman, storyteller and larger than life character Martha Jane Canary, aka Calamity, the show shows no sign of its age, despite it’s first production being over 55 years ago. With successful TV shows like Deadwood (which includes many of the Calamity Jane characters, including the leading lady) and Westwood plus countless western movies, the frontier is never far off the pop culture radar.
In 2016, Neglected Musicals – who stage productions of rarely seen productions with only one day’s rehearsal – included Calamity Jane in their lineup, starring Virginia Gay (All Saints, Jerry’s Girls, Hidden Sydney). The success of this staging inspired Richard Carroll and team to bring Calam and pals to the Hayes Theatre in this sublime full production.
At its core, Calamity Jane is a love story. But it’s not your typical love story, with a leading lady who is more comfortably being one of the lads, a few cases of mistaken identity and a colourful cast of characters who delightful bring the Golden Garter in Deadwood, South Dakota to life.
There are so many elements that make this production so successful. The staging, the music arrangement, the costumes, the wonderful scattering of current day events, the improv (including inclusion of random audience members), the but-gusting (and quite unexpected) comedy but most of all the absolutely spot on casting.
All eight cast members are so stunningly talented, with most of them playing multiple roles and not to mention instruments, throughout the show. Whilst the male cast, finely lead by Anthony Gooley (The Libertine, Death of a Salesman, Angels in America) as outlaw Wild Bill Hickock and Tony Taylor (Nicholas Nickleby, Cabaret) as hapless Golden Garter owner Henry Miller, are immensely entertaining, it really is the ladies that steal the show.
Laura Bunting (Sideshow, Wicked, Mary Poppins, Rent) and Sheridan Harbridge (Songs for the Fallen, Mrs Bang: A Series of Seductions in 55 Minutes) inhabit their characters of Katie Brown and Susan / Adelaide Adams with charm, grace, humour and wonderful aplomb. Bunting’s on-stage presence is undeniable, as is her chemistry with Gay. Harbridge is a comedic fascination, who draws many of the laugh-out-loud moments, especially as a disgruntled audience member at one stage during the show.
However, it really is Virginia Gay who is the bona fide all star of this show. Sometimes people are cast into roles that seem tailor made for them, and Gay as Calamity Jane is one of those instances. Her portrayal of the rough talking, rough riding, rough exterior but gooey interior, Sasparilly loving Jane is the stuff that award winning performances are made of.
Gay could easily give a masterclass in “face” acting. The amount of expression that she draws from her face, without saying or singing a word, is priceless and something I’ve never quite experienced in any other leading actor before.
Gay leads the cast with all of the strength and gravitas as required of a complex character like Calamity Jane, but does so with such apparent ease that it is an absolute joy to watch.
A special mention must go to Nigel Ubrihien, who is not only the Musical Director for Calamity Jane, but also plays an often hysterical part in the show, which contributes to the enjoyable immersive experience that the production team have created.
The score of Calamity Jane in this instance is played quite simply and without fuss, often just by Ubrihien on piano. However, if you are not moved deep to your core by “The Black Hills of Dakota”, then you didn’t deserve your seat.
At the end of it all, my face hurt from laughter, my soul was inspired by the strong female characters and my heart was enamoured by Gay and co. Hence my 5 star rating.
Calamity Jane is now playing at the Hayes Theatre http://www.hayestheatre.com.au/
Photo Credit: John McRae Photography