When Calamity Jane arrived at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co in March of last year, it received rave reviews, played to packed houses and, in January, received the Sydney Theatre Award for Best Production of an Independent Musical. Because of the tremendous response to its premiere season, the show has returned to the stage for a national tour, which has already taken in Parramatta, Orange, Wollongong, Canberra and Melbourne. Last week, it rode into its final stop – the Upstairs Theatre at Belvoir.
Based on the 1953 film starring Doris Day in the title role, Calamity Jane takes us to Deadwood City in the Midwest of the US. It’s 1876 and this is the American Old West, home to the legendary frontierswoman, Calamity Jane (Virginia Gay). At the local saloon bar, patrons long to be entertained by beautiful women. More than anything, they’d like to catch a glimpse of famed chanteuse Adelaide Adams (Sheridan Harbridge), who’s almost 1,000 miles away in Chicago. But after the townsfolk are left disappointed by the talents – or, more accurately, gender – of latest arrival, Francis Fryer (Rob Johnson), Calamity sets off for the big city on a mission to bring Adelaide back to Deadwood. But, instead, she mistakenly convinces Adelaide’s maid, Katie Brown (Laura Bunting), to make the journey and all sorts of shenanigans ensue.
Adapted by Ronald Hanmer and Phil Park from Charles K. Freeman’s stage play, and with lyrics by Paul Francis Webster and music by Sammy Fain, Calamity Jane is an immensely entertaining, hugely comical presentation, led by a fiery female who eschews gender expectations. It may be 57 years since Calamity and cohort first took the stage in Texas, but this is a piece as entertaining as it ever was.
Director Richard Carroll immerses the audience in Deadwood from the outset. Fourth-wall breaking incorporated throughout creates a palpable sense of intimacy between the 300-strong audience and the performers. Carroll’s treatment of the script (and the direction of his cast in that respect) sees every farcical aspect of the tale played up to full effect, while some of its more earnest moments (the sweet ‘The Black Hills of Dakota’ – Calamity’s declaration of love for the land) are reverentially staged and even tender.
But at the heart of this production – and a crucial reason for its success – is Gay, reprising her award-winning portrayal of the sharp-shooting tom boy heroine. It’s genuinely an outstanding performance that lives up to the hype generated during the initial Hayes Theatre Co run. Far from a clumsy caricature of Doris Day’s Calamity, Gay’s character is green and endearing but also steadfast and strong; she’s not what society dictates she should be and she’s all the better for it, charging her way forward in a man’s world.
There’s not a weak link in this cast, and the fact of the production now having spent some time on the road is certainly evident. Each and every performer exudes comfort in their role, moving easily between their scripted dialogue and moments of spontaneity. Anthony Gooley is excellent as the colourful Deadwood City peace officer, Wild Bill Hickock, lending tremendous presence to the role. Bunting brings believable innocence and magnanimity to her portrayal of maid and wannabe performer, Brown, while Harbridge exudes sass and self-assurance as the celebrated Adams and then country charm as Susan. Johnson demonstrates great timing and skill as vaudeville singer and dancer Fryer, and Matthew Pearce is well cast as Calamity’s long-time love interest, Lieutenant Danny Gilmartin. As the erratic saloon proprietor, Henry Miller, Tony Taylor is also a strong player in Carroll’s production.
Musical director Nigel Ubrihien is the show’s only full-time musician; his piano accompaniment throughout is often added to by cast members joining in with a variety of instruments including a ukulele and percussion. Lauren Peters’ visual depiction of ‘The Golden Garter’ fills the Belvoir stage beautifully, while all costuming choices are similarly successful in locating us in the action in the American Old West. Trent Suidgeest’s lighting choices are capped off by fairy lights illuminating the theatre well beyond the confines of the stage, further enhancing the distinctly immersive feel of this production.
Calamity Jane’s Belvoir encore is a must-see musical theatre experience for anyone able to get themselves to Surry Hills over the next month. This is skilfully performed, wonderfully directed and a whole lot of fun. It’s also yet another indicator of the remarkable quality of independent musical theatre currently on offer in Sydney.
CALAMITY JANE – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St Theatre (25 Belvoir Street, Surry Hills)
Dates: Playing now until 30 September, 2018
Times: Tuesday & Wednesday 6:30pm, Thursday & Friday 8pm, Saturday 2pm & 8pm and Sunday 5pm
Prices: Full price $77, Seniors $67, Concession $54, 30-Down $47, Student Saver $37
Tickets: belvoir.com.au/productions/calamity-jane or (02) 9699 3444