Left – Tony Taylor, Virginia Gay and Anthony Gooley. Cover – Tony Taylor, Virginia Gay and Sheriden Harbridge. Photos – John Mcrae
Once in a while a show comes along which so utterly surpasses your expectations that you leave the theatre feeling giddily happy at having seen something so full of vigour and sheer unadulterated fun.
The Hayes Theatre has become something of an unlikely venue over recent years for offbeat productions of musicals – unlikely, that is, given its small audience capacity, restrictive black-box stage with minimal rigging, little in the way of wings, and no orchestra pit – hardly the ideal setting for that most technically expansive and populist of theatrical genres. Thus seemingly better suited to straightforward plays, all the productions of musicals I have seen there have previously been comparatively obscure or offbeat works, scarcely the stuff of major Broadway hits of yesteryear. While Calamity Jane may not have had a major local revival in some time, it remains for many a classic of the genre, in no small part due originating as the famous 1953 film version starring romantic comedy superstar Doris Day.
So, while the material may not necessarily demand specific elaborate scenic effects like falling chandeliers or landing helicopters, some kind of representation of stagecoaches, frontier towns and Wild West vistas may seem like something not only de rigueur, but surely impossible to produce on a tight budget and in a venue such as this without looking tragically tacky. The trick is… they don’t even try. In fact, believe it or not, they don’t even have rifles and six-shooters. In a Western. Seriously. Actually, they make a joke in one scene about the fact that they couldn’t afford a theatrical firearms license.
And in that very joke lies the key to understanding this rather unusual production.
This is not a conventional staging of Calamity Jane. While somewhat shy of a deconstruction and certainly not a spoof, this is a HIGHLY irreverent take on the material, which ostensibly plays the narrative straight, yet has its collective tongue wedged so firmly in cheek that you might expect enunciation to be a challenge. Setting the tone with an apology about having to double so many characters amongst only eight actors, this is from the outset an intensely self-aware production. The show is replete with fourth-wall breaking asides and shot through with metatheatrical humour, such as mentions of the actor’s prior careers, local allusions and jibes on recent media trends. The approach is somewhat akin to many popular Gilbert and Sullivan productions habitually including some topical references, but here it is turned up to eleven, peppering this old musical with not only meta-jokes but also a pervasively cheeky, seemingly improvisational tone.
One of the strengths of this staging is that it has a very loose, almost theatresports-esque sensibility, yet also feels slick and tightly rehearsed, making it almost impossible to determine when certain extratextual moments were actually scripted or may have been genuinely improvised on the night. The actors frequently break character for momentary winks and eye-rolls, false-starts and physical comedy not directly related to the material. This leaves patrons in a constant state of surprise, never knowing what might happen next, however familiar with the original songs and story you may be. One imagines that a vast wealth of these many fleeting moments of extra material was developed in rehearsal between director Richard Carroll and his talented cast, yet intentionally allowing for some degree of the unexpected to be given free reign in any given performance.
A not inconsiderable part of this is due to two words that will either delight or strike fear into the heart of theatregoers… AUDIENCE INTERACTION! Although mostly fairly minimal in terms of what certain patrons are called upon to actually do, the show is unusually aggressive in the degree to which the cast address members of the crowd directly, certainly by traditional musical standards. Indeed, it is intrinsic to the whole staging concept, which embraces its apparent budgetary limitations by eschewing any complex scenery evoking the wide open spaces of the Old West. Instead they simply recreate the interior of the saloon theatre in which much of the action is set, with minimal alterations for other locations, and virtually all the musical accompaniment provided by one of the actors on piano.
What creates the shift in focus from the scenic to the tactile is the placement of half a dozen tables on the stage itself, at which are seated paying viewers who thus populate the entire production as involuntary extras. With almost a fifth of the show’s audience thus part of the onstage scenery, it creates an inclusive and immersive experience. Even those in the more conventional seats of the small performance space are far from excluded, with several uses of the central aisle for dramatic entrances, and abundant attention from the actors, who treat the entire crowd as part of the action.
All this irreverence of tone and audience engagement make for an incredibly vibrant, robust production which boldly makes light of its would-be shortcomings in staging such a big traditional musical on an apparent shoestring. It is so relentlessly and hilariously engaging that it is hard to draw breath to consider much in the way of weighty criticism. Although the show is not directly satirical of its own subject matter, given this rendition’s lightness of touch and its heavy reliance on meta-humour and apparent improvisation, it is conceivable that a truly diehard fan of Calamity Jane could, perhaps, perceive this level of supplementation as betraying a lack of faith in the original musical’s inherent entertainment value. If so, that would be an unfortunate reaction to this enormously enjoyable production, but perhaps an understandable response for a purist.
On a more general note, it could be said that a mild difficulty with this staging lies in a question of tonal balance. While Calamity Jane is undeniably comedic, it is also an old-fashioned romantic comedy, and despite its many digressive gags, Carroll’s rendition is not so radical of an adaptation as to be freed from the underlying text’s structure or songs. As a result the intense first half or more of the show, with its abundant slapstick and ribaldry, has to undergo a significant tonal change. The quickdraw comedy surrounding and suffusing barnstorming numbers, like “The Deadwood Stage” or “Windy City”, must rapidly downshift to the romantic drama informing the unironic sincerity of songs like “Higher than a Hawk” or the soulful “Black Hills of Dakota”, before passing through somewhat tamer romantic comedy scenes that lead us to the traditional multiple-weddings conclusion. The production doesn’t exactly falter, but for some it may be a jarring transition, rendering the back end of the show more than a tad less engaging than the riotous bulk of the earlier parts.
Any lulls are more than capably carried by the dynamic and well-oiled cast, who manage to pull off the serious numbers with much the same aplomb with which they approach the more anarchic comedy that infuses the production at large. Laura Bunting conveys a sassy charm and vulnerability as secondary romantic lead Katie Brown, and Rob Johnson is uproarious in the role of hapless actor Francis Fryer. Sheridan Harbridge makes quite an impression as both knockabout saloon performer Susan, as well as in a memorable single scene as the glamorous Adelaide Adams. Anthony Gooley is excellent in the male lead of Wild Bill Hickok, his strong accent work and relaxed, understated stage presence combining with his flawless comic timing to be the ideal foil for the show’s star. And what a star she turns out to be…
Because as important as the ensemble may be, “Calamity Jane” is more than just the title role, as the musical itself has always been a star vehicle. The production’s advertising heavily leans on the above-title-billed drawcard of popular actor Virginia Gay, and well it should. Even on paper, this felt like inspired casting, and the whole production concept seems to have been very much built around this central performer. While it is always hazardous to compare the apples and orange of a small-scale live production such as this to an iconic film performance, in some respects Virginia Gay inhabits the role in a more vital and embodied fashion than even Doris Day herself.
Traditionalists would likely disagree, for they certainly are dissimilar performances of the same material, to be sure, but in this highly energetic interpretation Gay is quite simply superb. Much earthier and bawdier (almost predatorily so at times) as well as more aggressively intense than prior interpreters, she infuses Calamity with an abundance of raw personality that may shock any audiences only familiar with her more buttoned-down television roles.
Gay’s physical presence and rough-and-tumble performance are a far cry from the petite Day’s cutely superficial grime and toughness, and seems somehow more fitting to the text’s putative representation of a crudely self-assured, gender-transgressive frontierswoman full of tall tales, who could out-ride and out-shoot her male contemporaries. It may seem perverse to say this in the context of such a “meta” production’s cursory approach to verisimilitude, yet Gay somehow seems to impart an underlying authenticity to the role that grounds all her hilarious mugging and gladhanding of the audience.
The feminist undertones in the material are undeniable, but not underscored quite as much as might be hoped for, given some of the production hype. However, there is more tangible acknowledgement of Calamity Jane (and Doris Day)’s reputation for “queered readings”, via injecting some amusing homoerotic flourishes to the song “A Woman’s Touch”.
While her impressive singing cannot be ignored, the most striking part of Gay’s performance is her incredible energy, fluidly interacting with the audience and her castmates without missing a beat, even turning small accidents and moments of apparent “corpsing” into hilarious parts of the greater whole. Although excelling a whisker more with her perfectly-pitched hammy comedy and wicked asides than in the dramatic sincerity towards the conclusion, Gay is an absolute dynamo, and the unquestioned lynchpin of the whole endeavour.
Although seemingly a modest effort at first impressions, this staging of Calamity Jane is a truly surprising powerhouse of a production, the little show that could, if you will. Through charm, wit and sheer passion, this beguilingly boisterous and hysterically funny piece of theatrical joy is one of the best things I’ve seen in ages, and cannot be recommended enough for those looking for a good laugh and a foot-stomping night of musical entertainment.
One Eyed Man Productions in association with Neglected Musicals and Hayes Theatre Co present
adaptation Ronald Hanmer and Phil Park | from the stage play by Charles K. Freeman | after Warner Bros. film written by James O’hanlon | lyrics Paul Francis Webster | music Sammy Fain
Directed by Richard Carroll
Venue: Hayes Theatre Co 19 Greenknowe Ave Potts Point
Dates: 8 March – 1 April 2017
Tickets: $55 – $68
Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au | 02 8065 7337