Calamity Jane. Adapted by Ronald Hanmer and Phil Park from the stage play by Charles K. Freeman after the Warner Bros. film written by James O'Hanlon. Lyrics by Paul Francis Webster. Music by Sammy Fain. Directed by Richard Carroll. One-Eyed Man Productions in association with Neglected Musicals and Hayes Theatre Company. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre. Until August 19. Bookings (02) 6275 2700 or canberratheatrecentre.com.au.
That Calamity Jane exists as a stage musical was news to me. But under Richard Carroll’s canny direction a ramshackle little company appears on the Canberra Playhouse stage in a spare production with a Brechtian streak. No orchestra, only musical director Nigel Ubrihien on a beat-up old piano. Twenty or so spectators have seats on stage and they can expect the chance of a rather active evening in this quite glorious reworking of the 1953 Doris Day/Howard Keel film.
At the heart of the story is Calamity Jane herself, a woman who’d rather wear buckskins than silk and, as played by Virginia Gay, a genuinely awkward woman who has yet to figure out how human relationships might work. She’s carrying a not too secret torch for the handsome Lieutenant Danny Gilmartin (Matthew Pearce). Not that the saloon in Deadwood run by the fiercely diminutive Henry Miller (Tony Taylor) with the assistance of his "niece" Susan (Sheridan Harbridge) and populated by some pretty inarticulate types like Wild Bill Hickok (Anthony Gooley) is going to help.
Henry is trying to run an entertainment program and engages earnest performer Francis Fryer (Rob Johnson) under the impression that he is getting a Frances. The resultant drag act does not go down too well and Calamity goes off to the big city to bring back the famous Adelaide Adams (Harbridge). However, she mistakenly comes back with an aspiring singer, Adams's maid, Katie Brown (Laura Bunting). Katie and Danny fall for each other but not before Katie has broadened Calamity’s horizons by introducing her to dresses and beautifying her cabin. Then it’s no holds barred until the inevitable sort out of the pairings at the end.
Thanks to an absolutely fresh approach by a cast and director determined never to waste an opportunity none of this is half as sappy as the film can get.
Bunting’s sweet-singing Katie has a great touch of toughness in her self-reinvention and Harbridge does a strong double act as the Europe bound diva Adelaide and the hapless Susan.
Taylor brings piles of experience to a wily, funny Henry. Pearce’s Danny has a little more substance and sensitivity than being a male (but pretty) face. And Rob Johnson’s Francis turns out to be a character of surprising dignity, beautifully played.
Wild Bill is safely in Gooley’s hands, as inarticulate about life and gender and identity in his own way as Calamity, but coming though to a soaring (if private) affirmation in Higher Than a Hawk.
But it’s Gay’s Calamity that leads the show with an energy and perception that transforms the material. There was a strange undercurrent during some of the best known numbers, especially The Black Hills of Dakota and Secret Love. All those people who remember the film from the Saturday matinees of the 1950s were quietly singing along and then gave up to listen to Gay move the music and the story somewhere deeper than Doris Day was ever allowed to.
Utterly not a show to be missed.