When Calamity Jane was devised by Warner Brothers as a 1953 western musical film starring Doris Day, it was done so with one clear goal in mind: to capitalise on the success of rival studio MGM’s 1950 movie Annie Get Your Gun with a similar kind of glossy, family-friendly tale.
Both films told highly-fictionalised stories of a real-life, tough, brittle and bold woman who defied the expectations placed upon women to survive in the Wild West. Their legacies are both contested — and maybe even diminished by these squeaky-clean film versions — but both have continued to have lives on stage in the decades since.
Calamity Jane is, at heart, a rather light piece of musical comedy. To call the plot thin would be an understatement, but it features some charming characters, scenes and songs, including The Black Hills of Dakota, Windy City and the Academy Award-winning Secret Love.
It follows the Annie Get Your Gun template very closely in terms of the evolution of its central character — a masculine, tomboy, ratbag of a woman gets a makeover, becomes beautiful and feminine, and eventually falls for the man who is her rival. Even the Calamity Jane number I Can Do Without You is essentially a rewrite of Annie Get Your Gun‘s ode to rivalry Anything You Can Do.
But while Calamity Jane‘s central narrative is a fairly conventional romance, the title character refuses to be hemmed in, even by the expectations of the genre.
It’s impossible to watch the original film in 2017 without the rather obvious queer subtext emerging with total clarity. Not only does Calamity refuse to conform to the expectations of her gender in terms of her dress and behaviour, her fascination with particular women clearly extends well beyond admiration.
Director Richard Carroll and performer Virginia Gay have excavated this subtext in ways that are often subtle and occasionally overt. You can’t ignore the obvious cues in the script that Calamity falls deeply in love with a woman; cues that have been written about by many critics and some academics in recent decades.
Gay is astonishing in the title role, finding a consistent internal life for Calamity, whose journey of self discovery becomes an unusual sexual awakening. This is a character who thinks she knows just how the world works, but her view of that world — and herself — is shaken up when she travels from her remote and rough home in Deadwood, South Dakota to the urbane city of Chicago and meets the delicate and beautiful aspiring actress Katie Brown.
But on top of that nuanced and intelligent central performance is an irresistible sense of irreverent raucousness that drives the whole production, and almost overcomes the fact that the musical itself is maybe 20 minutes too long.
Carroll’s production features on-stage seating, and those who choose that option truly become part of the performance in Deadwood’s saloon, the Golden Garter. The whole thing is endearingly unpolished and a bit of a slapdash affair, but that doesn’t mean that the comedy isn’t executed with razor-sharp precision.
This Calamity Jane is reminiscent of the legendary Jon English-Simon Gallaher production of Pirates of Penzance, which took a rather tired piece of comedy and injected it with a playfulness that reaches out to the audience and sometimes subverts their expectations. The results are often sidesplittingly funny.
Just as in Pirates, there’s slapstick, larger-than-life performances, intertextual references, meta-theatrical gags and pure silliness. The irony is that by slaughtering the sacred cow of respectability, both productions manage to be, in spirit, truer to their original texts than any traditional production might be.
There’s not a weak link amongst the cast: Laura Bunting sings beautifully and delivers a tender performance as Katie Brown, while Anthony Gooley and Matthew Pearce are both charismatic as the two men in Calamity’s life. Tony Taylor also turns in a memorable and very funny performance, mugging up a storm as the Golden Garter’s proprietor, Henry Miller.
But the two scene-stealers are Rob Johnson and Sheridan Harbridge (anybody familiar with Harbridge’s work would assume she has “scene-stealing” listed as a special skill on her resume). Johnson manages to wring all the comedic potential out of Francis Fryer, and offers delicious hints that the character has something bigger happening just underneath the surface, while Sheridan Harbridge is a scream as both the glamorous starlet Adelaide Adams and barmaid Susan, helping to establish the tone for the whole performance.
Lauren Peters’ production design is true to that spirit, as is Trent Suidgeest’s lighting, Cameron Mitchell’s witty choreography, and Nigel Ubrihien’s musical direction, with the jaunty score performed on a single upright piano. There are no microphones used in on stage, and while it means some lyrics are occasionally lost, it’s a very satisfying musical experience in such an intimate space.
This is almost certainly the funniest show the Hayes has ever produced, and it’s a welcome approach for classic comedies that are a little bit on the stale side. Here’s hoping we get to see more shows given the same treatment.
Photo by John Mcrae