Theatre Review: Virginia Gay’s Calamity Jane is knee-slappingly funny (at the Hayes Theatre until 9 April)

A new take on a theatrical classic makes this Calamity Jane a must-see. And the classic I’m referring to is not the musical – it’s the oft ridiculed theatrical style of ‘Broadway dinner theatre’. Everything bar the meal is here: interactions with the audience, contemporary references (insert Trump joke here), entrances and exits through the auditorium, ad-libs, slapstick, and even a big-name star in the lead. It shouldn’t work in a contemporary Sydney theatre but it really, truly does.

For starters, Calamity Jane is not the greatest of musicals. There are some nice numbers, even a few toe-tappers, but nothing to write home about (or belt out in the shower). The script, while lightly amusing, is as thin as a showgirl’s camisole. And really, its message that a woman needs to dress and act like a lady if she wants to succeed in life (for succeed read ‘marry a man’) is so outdated it makes our Government’s stance on marriage look positively progressive. So why on earth would you stage this show in 2017?!

Well, just be thankful that One Eyed Man Productions has picked up the gauntlet thrown down by Neglected Musicals because their take on this musical comedy is a breath of fresh, dusty, Western air.

Calamity Jane takes us back to the ‘ole West, where “injuns” were the enemy and gender roles were firmly fixed. Enter our heroine, Calamity, a fast talking, faster shooting woman who is as rough as her tales are tall. She joins the locals at the Golden Garter Saloon as they gather to see a “real live actress” from New York (for actress read ‘scantily clad female crooner’). When said actress fails to arrive, Calamity embarks on a quest to bring the renowned Adelaide Adams to the Garter stage.

Immediately upon arriving at the theatre you realise that this is not the traditional take on the Doris Day classic you may have expected. You enter the auditorium via the stage, where you are greeted by Henry Miller, proprietor, who welcomes you to the Golden Garter with open arms and a thick, American drawl. If you’re lucky enough to be able to secure tickets for a seat on the stage I highly recommend this, especially if you’re into audience participation. And there is a lot of audience participation.

It’s one of the things that makes this production so much fun. Nothing is taken too seriously, and theatrical conventions are treated more like inside jokes. At all times the cast is completely committed to the comedy, meaning it is sometimes difficult to know where to look. Even musical director, Nigel Ubrihien, gets in on the act. Director Richard Carroll has let the actors take wonderful liberties with the text and the result is a laugh-out-loud script filled with sight gags and one-liners.

However, Carroll has not shied away from the nuances in the book that may have been too much for original audiences. As he notes in the program, “It’s no great revelation that Calamity Jane contains feminist and queer themes ripe for interpretation.” In short, this production strikes a wonderful balance between old-fashioned entertainment and new-age self-awareness.

As you would expect from award-winning production designer, Lauren Peters, the set is crafty and perfectly establishes the tone of the evening. Most particularly because half the stage is occupied by paying audience members, seated in the saloon just like regular patrons. They take on their own ‘starring’ role in the show, thanks to the improvisational talents of the cast. Peters’ costumes are rustic, although potentially a little reminiscent of the kind found on less professional stages. But this is not necessarily a bad thing in the context of the production.

The music has also been given the once-over, with the show’s entire score covered by one man and a stand-up piano. This not only adds to the cabaret style created by the staging, but also allows the vocalists to play around freely as the mood takes them. The vocals are good too, especially when the company lets loose on four, five and six-part harmonies.

But comedy, not singing, is where this cast excels. They are led superbly by Virginia Gay, who gives a standout performance in the titular role. She is strong and purposeful, but with an air of insecurity that shows a deep connection with the role. And she is supremely funny.

So, too, is the scene stealing Rob Johnson, in the dual roles of Francis Fryer and Doc Pierce. His theatresport talents are given a platform in this production and he does not disappoint. Sheridan Harbridge (Susan/Adelaide Adams) does her fair share of theatrical theft too, drawing the eye and the laughs with confidence and ease.

As Wild Bill Hickock, Anthony Gooley takes a little while to find his stride, but his subtle quirks in the second act are the marks of a great performance. The songs don’t really give Laura Bunting (Katie Brown) the chance to showcase her vocal chops, but she is the perfect feminine foil for Gay. Rounding out the cast are Matthew Pearce (Lt Danny Gilmartin), who provides wonderful eye-candy for the ladies, and Tony Taylor, whose take on Henry Miller reminds you of that weird old uncle that you only ever see at Christmas (with a slightly questionable accent).

Get ready to have your ribs tickled and your sides split, because this show is choc-full of ‘hoote’ with a generous amount of ‘nanny’. In fact, the only calamity with this production is that no-one’s thought of doing it this way before.

Calamity Jane is playing at the Hayes Theatre until 9th April. For tickets, go here.

The reviewer attended on Tuesday 14th March.

Photo credit John McCrae