Iconic encore

Calamity Jane – Encore Season (Arts Centre Melbourne in association with One Eyed Man Productions, Neglected Musicals and Hayes Theatre Co)

Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio

December 12 – 23 (and from 1 January 2019 at the Comedy Theatre)

The weekend before I went to the encore season of “Calamity Jane” at The Arts Centre, Melbourne, I watched the 1953 Doris Day/Howard Keel film (because… any excuse). It may not have been the best idea, given the western musical movie’s iconic status, however, ultimately, it doesn’t matter anyway because this “Calamity Jane” is very much its own totally tongue-in-cheek beast.

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The setting is the Deadwood City’s Golden Garter Saloon, authentically created in the intimate Fairfax Studio space, which sees some audience members seated on stage as both as inn customers and an integral part of the show’s unique experience. “It’s immersive; you’ll get used to it” Calamity (Virgina Gay) tells one audience member early on in the show. We do and we love it, for this “Calamity Jane” is an absolutely joyous live performance in every regard.

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The spontaneous performance is certainly random at times, particularly of its with dance inclusions and even Inception-like moments, like when visiting performer Francis Friar (Rob Johnson) arrives at the saloon to perform an audition song “from the musical Calamity Jane”. But it is all part of the infectious ‘just go with it’ philosophy that is so much of the show’s all-encompassing appeal.

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At its core is, of course, is faithfulness to the characters and story assumedly (by the audience demographic), still loved by young and old alike, of the 1961 stage adaptation of the Academy Award winning movie musical. The legendary far-from-lady frontierswoman of the old American west, Calamity Jane (Virgina Gay) travels on the Deadwood stage to Chicago to fetch the star all the Deadwood City townsmen want, Adelaide Adams (Christina O’Neill). Instead she brings back Adelaide’s maid, aspiring performer Katie Brown (Laura Bunting), pretending to be the star. When Katie falls in love with Calvary lieutenant Danny Gilmartin (Matthew Pearce) who is Calamity’s sercret love, all sorts of shenanigans ensue on way to a conventional happy ever after ending for all.

This a very funny show, especially in its overt examination of the interplay of power and gender, and its increasing innuendo regarding interpretation of Calamity’s feeling for Katie, which crescendos in an after-show wedding party in the foyer where the subversive subtext exploited in the story and characters, becomes text. Seemingly so finely-tuned are the cast in work together that they not only comfortably incorporate ad-lib moments, but also make scripted dialogue seem spontaneous.

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Despite Gay’s wonderful, physical, fearless, often clown-like performance, things are not all high energy madcapperty. The score (musical direction by Nigel Ubrihien) is quite simple and the soulful, folk-like ‘Black Hills of Dakota’, for example, provides a beautiful respite from other antics. All cast members are on point, even playing most of the instruments, including trombone, tuba and guitar, however, undoubtedly and deservedly this is Virgina Gay’s show.

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Gay is a charming, awkward, expressive and endearing heroine, with comic nuance down to even her every glance. Indeed, in reprise of her award-winning portrayal as the feisty but transparently vulnerable Calamity, she absolutely owns the stage, but still has a wonderful love-hate bickering interplay with the softer than usual gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok (Anthony Gooley bringing a wonderful stage presence), in classic romantic comedy style.

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When it comes to this “Calamity Jane”, since its initial Hayes Theatre run, the ravers, it seems, really are right. Under Richard Carroll’s inspired direction, the combination of its many outstanding elements make this show a dynamic delight and it is easy to appreciate the whip-cracking speed with which its encore season shows have sold out. Now it just needs to tour to Brisbane so I can both see it again and share its joy in my own raving.

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