With a woman who refuses to shrink down into the boxes her society assigns her, a rowdy saloon in the middle of the Wild West, strongly hinted queer subtext, and an immersive theatre experience, One Eyed Man Production’s Calamity Jane has something for everyone. And if none of that sparks your interest, it boasts an incredibly talented cast delivering an outrageously hilarious production. It’s irresistible.
Based on the 1953 movie of the same name starring Doris Day, Calamity Jane is a musical Western set in the Golden Garter, a typical Western saloon with a typical crowd of regulars. There’s Wild Bill Hickock (a rugged Anthony Gooley), Lieutenant Danny Gilmartin (a charming Matthew Pearce), and Joe the bartender (a lucky audience member). Amidst these regulars is the atypical Calamity Jane (a ferociously funny Virginia Gay) – she dresses and acts how she wants, contrary to what was expected of women at the time, and has a careless relationship with the truth when it comes to stories of her travels and triumphs in battle.
After an actress, Frances, hired by saloon owner Henry Miller (Tony Taylor) turns out, to the disappointment of the men, to be an actor named Francis (the extremely versatile Rob Johnson), Calamity promises to get ‘Millie’ out of trouble by dragging alluring actress Adelaide Adams all the way from Chicago to perform at the Golden Garter.
She mistakes Adelaide’s maid, Katie Brown (Laura Bunting), for the actress, and brings her back to Deadwood where, although she is initially tormented for her deceit, she is soon after embraced by the rambunctious community, and swiftly catches the eye of more than one suitor.
In August last year, Calamity Jane was staged after one day of rehearsal as part of the Neglected Musicals program. Using that very well received staging as a springboard, and with leading lady Virginia Gay, who is a true national theatre treasure, at the forefront, director Richard Carroll has created a thriving and delightful production that never disappoints.
Calamity Jane has little to offer on its own accord – Sammy Fain’s music has some exciting moments, particularly when accompanied by the occasional very lovely lyric by Paul Francis Webster (such as in the well known song ‘Secret Love’). But apart from a few truly great moments, the score is largely uninspiring, and Ronald Hanmer and Phil Park’s book is similarly dated; the low-stakes plot never really takes off, and is scattered with racism against Native Americans and sexism against Calamity and other women onstage.
Despite the musical’s shortcomings this production, in the hands of this creative team and stellar cast, never feels obsolete. They have taken an old-fashioned musical with little new or exciting to say and turned it into something brimming with life, with never a dull moment.
Carroll’s direction is clearly attuned to the charm buried in this musical, and he knows how to uncover it in this immersive production, aided by Cameron Mitchell’s lively choreography, Lauren Peters’ transformative set that makes you feel at home within the Golden Garter, and Trent Suidgeest’s lighting. Carroll also has a deft handle on the queer undertones in the story, bringing those moments to the forefront throughout the first act so that the development of a relationship between Calamity and Katie feels like an authentic and well-developed connection, more than just vague subtext or wishful thinking on the audience’s part.
Musical Director Nigel Ubrihien takes up residence as the saloon pianist and has a well-balanced grip on the score’s contrasting moments between buoyant and sincere. The opening, ‘The Deadwood Stage’, bounces with infectious joy, while the ballads are captivating in their resolute beauty – particularly ‘The Black Hills of Dakota’. The score, even in its more ordinary moments, soars under Ubrihien.
This production has an excellent creative team behind it, but it works so well largely thanks to the mind-blowingly talented cast at its centre. In particular, the three women at the heart of this show shine. Sheridan Harbridge is a true comedy mastermind: from her sultry Adelaide Adams to her uniquely witty Susan, she kept the audience laughing from start to finish. Laura Bunting brought a great youthful drive to the wistful and ambitious Katie Brown, who sees Calamity for who she really is.
And Virginia Gay as Calamity Jane is truly remarkable – her Calamity is passionate and headstrong without forgoing vulnerability. Her comic timing and knowing humour is impeccable, having the audience in stitches for most of the show, but Gay enthrals us just as wholeheartedly with her openness and depth.
After a show that is such an outpouring of joy and humour, it would be difficult to leave the Golden Garter with anything but a smile across your face.