Calamity Jane reclaimed

One Eyed Man Productions in association with Neglected Musicals and Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, March 10.

The high-falutin’ way to describe director Richard Carroll’s Calamity Jane is to say its abundant meta-theatrics put a contemporary, ironic frame around an old-fashioned musical, revealing fresh insights. If that sounds deadly, fear not. The low-falutin’ truth is that along with being outstandingly clever, Calamity Jane is gut-bustingly funny and has an extraordinarily generous heart. Crucially, it is blessed with a central performance by Virginia Gay as fine as any seen on our musical stages since, I don’t know, forever.

Calamity Jane was presented last year as a staged reading in the Hayes’s Neglected Musicals series and turned out to be quite the surprise package for a piece that offers embarrassments on several fronts, including but not limited to race and gender.

CJ credit John Mcrae - Virginia Gay

Virginia Gay as Calamity Jane. Photo: John Mcrae

Take a look at Doris Day’s perky simplicity in the 1953 film that spawned the 1961 stage musical. Seen through the filter of the half-century since then, Calamity comes across as the town pet, patronised, indulged and patted on the head. If only she’d wash her face and put on a pretty frock: why, then she would be lovely and some man might condescend to marry her.

Gay’s Neglected Musicals turn, achieved with nothing more than a day’s rehearsal and book in hand, showed there could be a much more nuanced 21st-century take on a mushy mid-20th-century interpretation of an unconventional 19th-century woman. Calamity Jane had intriguing possibilities and a full production was put in the works. One likes to think the original Jane, real-life frontierswoman Martha Jane Cannary, would heartily approve.

Gay’s Calamity, or Calam as the good folk of Deadwood City call her, would smack you hard in the puss if you called her perky. She’s a roiling mass of powerful contradictions and ambiguities. Calam is physically strong and emotionally insecure; she can ride and shoot with the best of them but off a horse is a klutz; she’s blustery and bashful; resourceful and inept.

Only Calam would dash off to Chicago to bring back a superstar of the variety stage to save the bacon of old-duffer Golden Garter Saloon proprietor Henry Miller (Tony Taylor), who has stuffed up his entertainments program. Only Calam would bring back the wrong gal, ambitious but sweet Katie Brown (Laura Bunting). And only Calam, who has a heart the size of South Dakota, could make things right when Katie’s Golden Garter debut is a disaster.

She finds it much harder to sort out her love life, which is non-existent but so deeply wanted. Calam is desperate to be desired and perhaps it doesn’t really matter by whom. Whether Gay is assiduously tending to the wounds of her first choice, dashing Lieutenant Danny Gilmartin (Matthew Pearce), or getting hilariously and Sapphically domestic with Katie, or discovering (spoiler alert!) that her old sparring mate Wild Bill Hickok (Anthony Gooley) feels something for her, her eagerness makes Calam achingly vulnerable.

CJ credit John Mcrae - Tony Taylor Virginia Gay and Anthony Gooley

Tony Taylor, Virginia Gay and Anthony Gooley. Photo: John Mcrae

The great beauty of Carroll’s production is how easily this emotional truth sits alongside the rollicking self-referential comedy, with its show-within-a-show-within-a-show jokes (“Now I’m going to sing Ev’ryone Complains about the Weather from Calamity Jane”), contemporary gags and happily blurred lines between actors and audience. The casting of Gooley as Hickok is particularly successful. He makes the legendary gunman a more observant and warmer figure than might be expected and he sings the wistful Higher than a Hawk with quiet grace.

The director makes having a tiny budget look like a brilliant artistic choice. The bijou cast size means Sheridan Harbridge and Rob Johnson have to take on several roles; both seize every chance to turn the multi-tasking into comedy gold of the highest grade. With music director Nigel Ubrihien at the upright piano there’s a band of precisely one, augmented by cast members on guitar, ukulele, trombone, accordion and tuba. And as there are only seven performers to represent rather more than seven characters, Ubrihien has to double as an actor too, which he does with aplomb.

Designer Lauren Peters’s bare-bones Wild West saloon, beautifully lit by Trent Suidgeest, works a treat and Cameron Mitchell’s choreography is a hoot. Adding to the general delight is the truly gorgeous score by Sammy Fain (music) and Paul Francis Webster (lyrics), blissfully heard unamplified. Every song is a winner but first among equals are The Black Hills of Dakota, sung a cappella by the ensemble, and Gay’s thrilling My Secret Love.

I confidently predict Calamity Jane will get a standing ovation from the entire house at every show. I have more reasons than the ones just enumerated here but try to see for yourself, if you can get in. The run has been extended but seats are scarce.

Calamity Jane runs until April 9.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on March 13.

High and low

High Society, Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, September 7; Anything Goes, Sydney Opera House, September 8   

IN one giddy night of mayhem, pairs of lovers – former, would-be, should-be, desperately mismatched – ricochet around in the search for a safe harbour. Intoxicants are taken, identities are mistaken, the low-born mingle with the high-born, a man is very much an ass and everything turns out for the best in the end.

No, not A Midsummer Night’s Dream but High Society, which in the hands of director Helen Dallimore and a blue-chip cast is a blissful demonstration of just how foolish we mortals can be. Throw in a selection of Cole Porter songs (Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, True Love, Let’s Misbehave and many more) and the happiness is complete.

The 1997 musical (book by Arthur Kopit, additional lyrics by Susan Birkenhead) is based on the 1956 film based on Philip Barry’s 1940 play The Philadelphia Story. Rich and beautiful Tracy Lord (Amy Lepahmer, adorable) is about to marry George Kittredge (Scott Irwin, hilarious) so upright you could use him as a plumbline and thick with it. Tracy’s former husband CK Dexter Haven (Bert LaBonte, coolly suave) pops by to solve a problem and cause mischief simultaneously and two party-crashing journalists (Virginia Gay and Bobby Fox, perfection) stir the pot and arouse passions.

Michelle Barr, Amy Lehpamer and Phillip Lowe in High Society

Michelle Barr, Amy Lehpamer and Phillip Lowe in High Society

Tracy’s parents are having a spot of marital bother of their own, her Uncle Willie is a drunken, lascivious old goat and young sister Dinah is a sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued observer and meddler. It’s all go in the Lord household as a pre-wedding bash for 700 guests gets underway.

How to manage that in a 110-seat theatre? Amusingly and effectively, as it happens, with set designer Lauren Peters cunningly representing the glamorous big-house, old-money setting with a simple set of moveable arches. She even gets in a cheeky reveal after interval. Not only are changes of location achieved in an instant, there’s a pleasing swirl that echoes the emotional eddies and flows. The four-piece band – yes, only four – under Daryl Wallis’s direction achieves wonders and the sound balance is far better than usual at the Hayes, which is a big win.

LaBonte gives a slow-burn performance that speaks of feelings kept in check under a glossy and sophisticated exterior and Jessica Whitfield is very funny as Dinah, the wise-beyond-her-years kid who wants to save Tracy from herself. With Delia Hannah as Tracy and Dinah’s mother Margaret, Russell Cheek as Margaret’s errant husband Seth, Laurence Coy enjoyably chewing the scenery as Uncle Willie and Michelle Barr and Phillip Lowe as the two-person chorus of household servants, it’s a classy cast from top to bottom.

And you’d have to go a long way to see better than Lepahmer, Gay and Fox. Lepahmer looks a million dollars in her slinky red gown and is a greatly gifted, all-singing, all-dancing comedienne. Fox gets writer Mike Connor’s mix of cracking hardy and regret at wasted talent. And as Liz Imbrie, Gay gives a performance that should have music-theatre fans from around the country rushing to see it. In love with Mike, avoiding Uncle Willie’s clutches, seeing everything and understanding all, she is smart and witty and heartbreaking.

The contrast between High Society and Anything Goes, seen – partially – the following evening, couldn’t have been greater. The light, fizzing comedy so necessary for Cole Porter’s imperishable melodies and the featherweight storyline of Anything Goes (young lovers; social climbing; a nightclub singer who was previously an evangelist; gangsters on the run) is AWOL. There is little other than Dale Ferguson’s lovely costumes to evoke the drop-dead glamour of a sea crossing from New York to London in the 1930s. Director Dean Bryant leans too heavily on material that should be nimble and buoyant as it flies through the serial improbabilities of the book. I was so disheartened I left at interval so my comments, necessarily brief, must therefore be seen in that light. The second half may have delighted.

High Society ends October 4. Anything Goes ends October 31. 

Love, death, politics …

Kryptonite, Sydney Theatre Company, September 16; Unholy Ghosts, Griffin Theatre Company, September 17; LoveBites, White Horse Productions with Hayes Theatre Co, September 18.

ON the face of it Kryptonite, Unholy Ghosts and LoveBites have nothing in common except taking place in a theatre, but seeing the three on consecutive evenings made me think of them as a group; as independent but connected pieces illuminating fundamental aspects of life’s journey. Love, death, politics …

Sue Smith’s beautifully named Kryptonite throws together politics, sex, international business and race. That combo would sap anyone of their strength. Lian (Ursula Mills) and Dylan (Tim Walter) meet at university. She is Chinese and scrambling to survive in a system that lets her study here but not earn enough money to keep herself. He’s a laidback Australian with a passion for surfing. They make a connection that, over the next 25 years, waxes, wanes and is buffeted by external forces. The massacre at Tiananmen Square is one of them; the rise of Australian business connections with China is another.

Tim Walter and Ursula Mills in Kryptonite. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Tim Walter and Ursula Mills in Kryptonite. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

It’s fertile ground for drama and highly pertinent as, in scenes played out of chronological order, we see how events in the wider world – the Asian world – affect Lian and Dylan personally and politically.

I found the role of Dylan a little underwritten, although perhaps I should see Kryptonite again to see if that’s fair – on opening night I was so swept away by the writing for Lian and Mills’s performance that it was hard to concentrate on anything else. Even at her shyest and most vulnerable Lian is strong, witty and very, very smart. No wonder she becomes a tough and successful operator, although with divided loyalties. Smith has written a mesmerising part and Mills is extraordinary. Geordie Brookman directed.

Unholy Ghosts isn’t so much a play as a group therapy session. I don’t mean this unkindly. I was absorbed by Campion Decent’s story, based on his own experience, but its power is that of personal, intimate revelation. I too have lost my parents, as people of a certain age do. It was only when my father died last year, eight years after the death of my mother, that I realised it was possible for a mature adult to feel orphaned. Decent’s story has the added pressure of parents dying within a short space of time, of them having been acrimoniously divorced, and the hovering presence of a long-dead sister. James Lugton, playing the Son, talks about his dying parents and talks to them, although some of the dialogue sounds suspiciously like people telling people they are close to things they should already know. Father (Robert Alexander) apparently terrified Son when he was a child but we must take that on faith, as the old man we meet is certainly irascible but rather a sweetie. Mother (Anna Volska) is a former actress and loads of fun.

The technical shortcomings include a rather awkward ending, but it was impossible not to be moved by the deeply felt discussion of death: how to face it, how to cope with it.

I saw LoveBites when it premiered at Sydney’s Seymour Centre in 2008. I reviewed it for The Australian and I started my piece this way:

“James Millar is seriously talented. Not yet 30, he’s written, with composer Peter Rutherford, songs about love that are fresh, literate, humane and insightful. The most trampled-over subject in musical theatre has come up sparkling.”

Obviously Millar is a few years older now, but I’m happy with the rest of the sentence and with the conclusion. It’s great to see a revival at the Hayes Theatre, very well cast with Kirby Burgess, Tyran Parke, Adele Parkinson and Shaun Rennie. Troy Alexander directed, there’s smart choreography by Ellen Simpson and designer Lauren Peters uses the small Hayes Theatre Co space astutely by using two revolves. Becky-Dee Trevenen does a pretty good job with the costumes, which the four performers have to change at speed to accommodate their very different characters. The band, under the musical direction of Steven Kreamer, is fine as far as it goes but the sound balance is out of whack and does a disservice to the singers.

But you know what? I’m just going to haul out my 2008 review. Change the names and the design concept and we’re all good.

From The Australian, June 23, 2008

JAMES Millar is seriously talented. Not yet 30, he’s written, with composer Peter Rutherford, songs about love that are fresh, literate, humane and insightful. The most trampled-over subject in musical theatre has come up sparkling.

Earlier this year Millar and Rutherford premiered The Hatpin, a large-scale historical musical based on a fascinating, and true, Australian story. We didn’t have to wait long for their next venture, the song cycle LoveBites. On the surface it may look like a far less ambitious project but this allusive, sophisticated and compressed art brings its own challenges.

Millar tells the story of six unrelated couples who are captured at the moment of falling in love. In the second half we see how it all turned out. There’s no scene-setting, apart from a series of beautifully chosen projections designed by Martin Kinnane, and no expository dialogue. Everything must be conveyed through song in the space of five or six minutes.

Within that tight timeframe Millar has created a set of persuasive individuals whose fate you want to know: Daniel and James from the poorly attended reading group; Madeleine and Poppy, whose courtship starts with the buying of a single flower; Annie and Kevin, whom disaster strikes in the form of a non-working loo.

At almost every point the detail feels vivid and truthful. It’s fun that Georgine has to pretend she’s an ace rock-climber when Peter first asks her out and that the heavenly Kevin works with deaf children. Obviously taken from life is the tryst between a famous film star and a flight attendant in an aircraft toilet, and yes, Ralph Fiennes is name-checked. Rutherford turns this into a breathy, torchy number, called The Captain’s Turned Off the Seatbelt Sign.

The composer gracefully lets the lyrics take centre stage but is sensitive to the needs and moods of each character. There’s wistful delicacy for Poppy in Give It to the Breeze and a buoyant, confident anthem for James and Daniel, Setting the Date. I was less convinced by the poo song that ends the show. It has an impeccable message but feels a bit try-hard compared with the rest of LoveBites.

On piano, Rutherford accompanies a hard-working cast of four, including Millar. The odd little Downstairs Theatre at the Seymour Centre has a hard, dead acoustic and even though they are miked there are times when Octavia Barron-Martin and Sarah Croser in particular sound under-powered. Millar and Tyler Burness fare much better but I hesitate to be definitive about the vocal qualities of any of them in these conditions. They play the show very well under Kim Hardwick’s nicely unobtrusive direction.

Sound quibbles aside, LoveBites is a very significant achievement. Music theatre aficionados take note: a team that can write Bob and Louise is one to treasure. The song captures a lifetime of longing, pain and quiet, ordinary desperation in just a few minutes, and I wasn’t the only one crying by the end.

Kryptonite, Wharf 1, ends October 18; Unholy Ghosts, The Stables, Sydney, ends September 20; LoveBites, Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, ends October 5.