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.

Sweet Charity

Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, February 13

HAYES Theatre Co came into being when Darlinghurst Theatre Company vacated its tiny 19 Greenknowe Ave premises in Potts Point, having become the resident company at the spiffy new Eternity Playhouse. Sydney City Council, which spent about $8 million on the transformation of the former Baptist church into a beautiful 200-seat theatre, then asked for expressions of interest in Greenknowe Ave.

A group of savvy but itinerant music-theatre presenters seized the moment and formed a consortium with the very pragmatic name of Independent Music Theatre and a most laudable goal: to provide Sydney with a permanent home for regular productions of musicals and cabaret. IMT won the bid, had a successful Pozible fundraiser to give the theatre a bit of a facelift – petite chandeliers in the foyer! – and gave itself a more user-friendly name to use in public: Hayes Theatre Co. The name pays tribute to Nancye Hayes, who was cheered to the echo on the opening night of Hayes Theatre Co’s first show, Sweet Charity.

Girls on chairs

It was a rather glamorous evening, actually, although I suspect there will be less glamour behind the scenes as producers work to big-city standards on low budgets. Tickets to Sweet Charity are a measly $49; the producers may have to rethink the pricing strategy when – and we must hope it’s when – you can’t get one of the 110 available seats for any money.

Sweet Charity set the bar high for what is to follow. It was produced by David Campbell, Lisa Campbell, Richard Carroll and Neil Gooding, all highly experienced in the field. The cast was headed by Verity Hunt-Ballard (Mary Poppins) and Martin Crewes (loads of large-scale musicals here and on the West End) and the creative team featured the almost ubiquitous Dean Bryant as director (worldwide associate director of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert etc etc et al), Andrew Hallsworth as choreographer (Priscilla, loads of Production Company and Melbourne Theatre Company shows) and, get this, Oscar, BAFTA and AFI winner Tim Chappel on costumes.

With this kind of commitment it’s hard not to be reminded that the small Menier Chocolate Factory (180 seats) has become a big player on London’s theatrical landscape. Limited means don’t have to equate to limited results. In fact, it can be revelatory to see on an intimate scale work that was premiered splashily. Australia lacks London’s depth, it is true, but it’s pleasing to think that work developed at Hayes Theatre Co could have a life elsewhere.

And now to Sweet Charity, which has been downsized and dirtied up in a way that not only suits the theatre but also is very much to the benefit of the piece. I was somewhat reminded of the extraordinary John Doyle production of Sweeney Todd I saw on Broadway some years ago. Todd is frequently done by opera companies in the grandest manner; here there was scarcely any set, the re-orchestrated score was played by actor-singers who never left the stage (Patti LuPone’s Mrs Lovett on tuba, if you can imagine that) and the effect was shattering. Similarly, Chicago is still running on Broadway 17 years after its stripped-down appearance as part of New York’s Encores series.

Sweet Charity, of course, is no Sweeney Todd (or Chicago). Some of Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields’s songs and lyrics still have a little currency – who doesn’t recognise the tough six-note statement that introduces Big Spender? – but Charity is very much of its time. Within moments of the start Charity’s boyfriend steals her bag and throws her in a lake; later a film star hides her in a cupboard while he entertains his girlfriend; later still she is dumped because her new man can’t get over her “past”. Sex and sentimentality collide, and all this is supposed to be really rather amusing and Charity a good sport.

Nevertheless, Bryant’s conception of Sweet Charity shows how powerful it can be to have to think small. In large-scale productions, when Charity sings I’m a Brass Band you’re likely to get just that. On a stage roughly the size of two dozen hankies, it’s less easy to pretend that Charity Hope Valentine, a dancer stuck in a crumby dive, is just a sweet little goofball whose romantic mishaps pass as quickly and painlessly as summer rain.

On a dark, almost bare stage (set design Owen Phillips, lighting Ross Graham) with a hard-edged band up the back, Bryant eliminates most of the dubious sentimentality that can make Sweet Charity a decidedly icky affair. These days, who wants to chuckle indulgently at a poor, barely educated young woman working at the fringes of the sex industry? To counter that the design team creates the mood of a seedy nightspot, with just a few screens and some basic chairs; performers hang around the edges to get changed and Bryant and choreographer Hallsworth have men circling women like hyenas in search of a feed. After all, Nickie (Debora Krizak) does describe the Fandango Ballroom work this way: “We defend ourselves to music.”

There is a downside, though. In many ways Bryant’s muscular, stripped-down approach makes Sweet Charity’s flaws even more obvious (Neil Simon was responsible for the flabby book), and he doesn’t find a way of making sense of one of Sweet Charity’s biggest musical hits, Rhythm of Life. It’s rather rushed through, presumably because it is an odd fit in this crepuscular world.

Big Spender, always an ironic number, works a treat and Rich Man’s Frug is a Surrealist delight thanks to Chappel’s costumes and Hallsworth’s splendid choreography.

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity Hope Valentine

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity Hope Valentine

Leaving her long stint as Mary Poppins well behind her, Hunt-Ballard is a shiny-eyed, exceedingly likeable Charity who carries the show with tremendous verve. Touchingly, this Charity is much more intelligent and resourceful than she gives herself credit for, although Hunt-Ballard could usefully find a little more vulnerability. You don’t really sense the extent of her damage, although the ending shows she has it in her. All the women (and one man) of the Fandango Ballroom are wonderful, with Krizak outstanding in two roles.

Crewes, playing all Charity’s men friends, is a super-sexy Vittorio, an over-nerdy Oscar and could with profit turn the dial down – he’s a man used to commanding 2000-seat auditoriums; here the audience is practically sitting on his knee.

Speaking of which, there is little to match the thrill of theatre seen right up close. Sweet Charity may be a problematic piece but the work done on it by this small, highly expert team is exceptional. Next up from March 14: The Drowsy Chaperone, produced by Squabbalogic. Can’t wait.

Ends March 9.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on February 17.