Review / Calamity Jane’s ‘unmissable’ big, brassy experience

theatre / “Calamity Jane”, Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse, August 16-19. Reviewed by BILL STEPHENS

Central to the success of this concept is Virginia Gay’s brilliant performance as Calamity Jane… Photo by John McRae

BIG, bold, brash and brassy, this exuberant re-imagining of the 1950s cult film, which starred Doris Day as Calamity Jane, hits the bull’s eye in every department.

The deceptively rough-and-ready presentation, disguises a brilliant concept by Richard Carroll, in which a cast of just seven accomplished actors, and one-hard working musical director, fill the stage with all the characters necessary to breathe new life into this almost forgotten musical.

Lauren Peters has designed an evocative environment which effectively converts the Playhouse into the ramshackle wild western saloon, with audience members seated around tables on stage, and fairy lights reaching out into the auditorium, to create an immersive experience for everyone else. Her decidedly unglamorous costumes strike exactly the right note.

And who needs an orchestra when the actors can play their own instruments? Tubas, trombones, ukuleles, drums and a revolving piano, are called into service as required. Some songs are even sung a cappella, particularly effectively for “The Black Hills of Dakota”. Wigs, moustaches and even members of the on-stage audience, are utilised by the cast to conjure up a myriad of supporting players to hilarious effect, with the audience included in the fun addressed directly with topical asides and comments.

Central to the success of this concept is Virginia Gay’s brilliant performance as Calamity Jane. Gay has created a remarkably authentic character, whose confusion as to how she fits in, is disguised under a bumptious exterior. Her attempts to emanate the men around her are hilarious, and her confusion at her feminine responses ignited by her friendship with blow-in Katie Brown, are genuinely touching.

Perhaps the real surprise of this production is how well each of the actors are able to snap out of the hilarity of the horse-play to focus moments that are often quite moving in their authenticity as the story progresses. Laura Bunting, captivating as Katie Brown, Anthony Gooley, wonderfully ridiculous as Wild Bill Hickock, Sheridan Harbridge, saucy and sophisticated in contrasting roles as Susan and Adelaide Adams, Rob Johnson, rather adorable as the gormless Francis Fryer, Matthew Pearce both funny and sincere as the hunky Lt. Danny Gilmartin, and Tony Taylor, hilariously and continuously frustrated as Henry Miller, each contribute special qualities to their characterisations which make this production particularly memorable.

Oh, and that hard working musical director, Nigel Ubrihien, proves not only a dab-hand on the revolving piano, but quite the master at creating his own memorable moments.

Though this Canberra season of “Calamity Jane” is all too short, you’d be mad to miss it.

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