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 acapella, particularly effectively for The Black Hills of Dakota.
Wigs, mustaches and even members of the on-stage audience, are utilized 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 Hickok; 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 characterizations 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, this production is moving to Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney for an extended season and you’d be mad to miss it.
Playhouse – Canberra Theatre Centre, London Circuit, Canberra
Performance: Thursday 16 August 2018
Image: Anthony Gooley, Virginia Gay, Laura Bunting and Matthew Pearce star in Calamity Jane – photo by John McRae
Review: Bill Stephens OAM