There aren’t too many musicals where the central focus is one character, which happens to be a woman. But Calamity Jane is such a beast, and the title role is one of the true plum parts for strong female performers.
In the current touring production, television’s Virginia Gay (All Saints, Winners and Losers) is a revelation, as she proves she is just as comfortable handling a live audience as she is with the one that loves her on the small screen.
There is more than a touch of the great Katherine Hepburn in Gay’s performance as Calamity. Gay is a quick-witted performer, and many times she manages a sharp ad lib that has the audience in stitches.
The character of Calamity Jane is a rough, tough, confident female with a heart of gold, who is often mistaken for a man, due to her masculine capabilities and disregard of female glamour. In fashion terms, she looks a perfect fright. But she is much loved and valued by residents of the Wild West town of Deadwood.
The story opens with saloon owner Henry Miller (Tony Taylor) desperate to entice a few female acts to his stage in Deadwood, to keep his largely male customers happy and filling his coffers. He sends away for Frances Fryer, thinking he will get a gorgeous actress, but the Francis Fryer (Rob Johnson) who arrives is a bloke, and Henry despairs of his customers’ outrage when they find they have been unintentionally hoodwinked.
To save the day, Calamity Jane offers to ride to the big smoke of Chicago to drag back the most popular and beautiful actress of the day, Adelaide Adams (Christina O’Neil). But, due to a backstage confusion, it’s the actress’s starstruck maid, Katie Brown (Laura Bunting), who comes back to perform for the good citizens of Deadwood. Unfortunately, Katie is initially a disaster, so Calamity is forced to assert her authority and keep the peace, and she and Katie become great friends.
Katie soon wins the town over but unfortunately has two men madly in love with her: Lieutenant Danny Gilmartin (Matthew Pearce) and Wild Bill Hickock (Anthony Gooley). To prove that the course of true love never runs smooth, Calamity harbours a not-so-secret passion for Danny, and when Katie and Danny fall in love, sparks fly. The girls’ friendship is at an end, as Calamity orders Katie to leave town.
But this is a show with a happy ending, and after a few twists and turns, Calamity realizes that the man she truly loves is Bill, and the show ends in a very happy double wedding.
What is very different about this production is that it is done with a tiny cast of eight actor-singers, and that includes musical director Nigel Ubrihien, who switches between the piano, piano accordion and character work all night.
There is a wealth of musical talent in the cast, with various actors strutting their stuff on tuba, trombone and ukulele – this certainly takes multi-skilling to the nth degree.
This is a show with plenty of audience interaction, as many audience members are seated at tables in the saloon, and one man is picked to become part of the action. And it all works very well indeed, with the cast able to handle all the unexpected things that happen.
This could be called Calamity Jane Meets Cabaret, as the show is created around the audience rather than just performed to them. The talented cast certainly brings home the bacon, and Virginia Gay is a triumph as Calamity Jane.
Calamity Jane has sold out its current two-week run at Arts Centre Melbourne’s Fairfax Theatre, but has a return Melbourne season in December.