Arts / ‘Calamity Jane’ comes out firing

“Calamity Jane” with the audience on stage. Photo Jeff Busby

THERE’LL be whip cracking and wisecracking, too, when the Hayes Theatre production of the musical “Calamity Jane” rolls into town this month.

It began as a tiny production in Sydney’s tiniest (111 seats) theatre, but star Virginia Gay as the Wild West heroine Calamity has drawn accolades and awards in the broader theatre world.

It was made into a movie in 1953 by Warner Bros, who hoped to repeat the success of the musical “Annie Get Your Gun” and many readers will remember Doris Day and Howard Keel as Calamity and her other half, Wild Bill Hickok, both real-life characters from history.

Virginia Gay as the Wild West heroine Calamity Jane… drawn accolades and awards in the broader theatre world.
Photo by Marnya Rothe

Now the stage musical is coming to The Playhouse, where some of the audience will be sitting on stage. Patrons have been clamouring to become part of the crowd at the Golden Garter Saloon of the musical, but for most people the real excitement is going to be hearing those fabulous songs such as “Deadwood Stage”, “Windy City”, “The Black Hills of Dakota” and, of course, the romantic Sammy Fain/Paul Francis Webster song, “Secret Love”, which won an Oscar.

Musical director Nigel Ubrihien should and does know all about it. He’s played keyboard in everything from “Aladdin” to The Wharf Revue and Eric Idle’s “Not the Messiah”, is a legendary cabaret director/performer and was musical director/conductor of “Sweet Charity”, another hit the Canberra Theatre borrowed from the Hayes Theatre in 2015.

Ubrihien points out how unusual the genesis of the musical is. First came the 1953 movie and then followed the Broadway musical, which included many songs never seen on screen.

“In the show there’ll be a good half of the act one songs that you won’t know,” he tells “CityNews” but at least the opening number, “Deadwood Stage” (“Whip crack away, whip crack away, whip crack away”) is from the movie.

Musical director Nigel Ubrihien… “Ninety per cent of our show is played on a clapped-out, honky-tonk piano.”

The structure for a film, Ubrihien says, is not the same as the structure of a musical. Some songs were taken out, such as “Lucky Me,” which turned up in another Doris Day film.

“In those days people wrote songs on spec,” he says.

“It wasn’t important to them and they thought, ‘a good song is a good song’.

“Ninety per cent of our show is played on a clapped-out, honky-tonk piano,” he says.

“I asked myself, how would it be if a genuine frontier town happened to be doing a performance of ‘Calamity Jane’?”

Ubrihien himself will perform most of the accompaniment on the piano, but says: “There are other instruments, there is an accordion for a bit of colour and also the ‘banjolele’, as authentic as we can possibly get. There are no trumpets nor drums.”

With authenticity in mind, he figured there were some scenes where the piano just didn’t fit in, such as “Take me Back to the Black Hills”, so he used banjolele, guitar and accordion.

“We tried to create a more focused sound, we listened to Appalachian folk music as we wanted to get the outdoor feel,” he says.

It is Ubrihien’s view that the musical is “incredibly forward-thinking and there’s even a bit about indigenous culture” and something that would have been progressive for 1953, is the way it takes up the world of women and what it means to be a woman.

Wild Bill Hickok represents the world of men. Both Annie Oakley and Calamity were historical and so was Wild Bill.

“Calamity claimed she had a child by him but she tended to overblow things somewhat” Ubrihien says.

“Not maliciously, she got carried away, but it’s true that they did meet.

“I grew up with it as a rainy Sunday afternoon movie, then I watched it as an adult and consider it a much better film than people give it credit for, so in some ways we keep close to the movie.”

But some things, he notes, just don’t gel on stage, like the fact that some characters disappear and never return.

“In Act I of the stage show there’s a lot of door-slamming and mistaken identity, it’s just farcical, but while Act II is funny there’s more focus on the four lovers at the heart of the show, [Calamity, Bill, Katie and the dishy Lt Danny Gilmartin] so in the second part some of the lines of dialogue make for a lump in the throat.”

The musical highlights are still “The Black Hills” and “Secret Love”, but whether the music progresses the action is a thorny question and in this show the music doesn’t comment much on the plot, although romantic songs and both are successful in their own way.

“Our approach is stripped away,” Ubrihien says, with just piano for

“Secret Love” and “The Black Hills” played very simply.

“Virginia does those beautifully and there won’t be a dry eye in the house.”

“Calamity Jane”, The Playhouse, August 15-19.

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