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.

Tragedy, Tragi-comedy and lots of Sondheim

The Glass Menagerie, Belvoir, September 30

Howie the Rookie, Red Line Productions in association with Strange Duck Productions and Sydney Independent Theatre Company, Old Fitzroy Theatre, October 2

Sondheim on Sondheim, Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre, Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, October 3

EAMON Flack’s production of The Glass Menagerie for Belvoir is very beautiful; perhaps too much so. It is wonderful to see this great play treated so lovingly but it has a blurred outline, as if Vaseline had been smeared over a camera lens to give a more flattering, romantic image. Film is how Tom Wingfield (Luke Mullins) – the narrator and protagonist of Tennessee Williams’s first stage success – mediates his story as he delves into the past that was crushing him. Cameras capture parts of the action and relay it to screens on either side of the cramped Wingfield home and old-fashioned title cards introduce certain scenes. They are nods to Williams’s early brush with the film industry and neatly illustrate the paradoxes this play is built upon. We are entirely at the mercy of Tom’s memories regarding the truth of things, but understand that truth can sometimes be best reached through artifice. We must never forget, though, that this is Tom’s version of his early life, coloured by guilt, shame and anger. Flack’s production is persuasive in this respect, as was John Tiffany’s more spare, rather tougher version I saw on Broadway last year starring the extraordinary Cherry Jones.

So, we must accept that Tom sees Laura as not so very crippled, and not so very fragile. Newcomer Rose Riley is lovely – centered, quite composed, creating a world that suits her. She’s sheltered, of course, but she’s made her choices. We must also accept that Tom sees the Gentleman Caller, Jim O’Connor (Harry Greenwood), as younger than one would expect and somewhat gauche, although this wasn’t an interpretation that convinced me.

Mullins quietly and expertly gets under your skin and, not surprisingly, Pamela Rabe is an unforgettable Amanda, her rage and disappointment contained enough to allow her to survive, but heard in every garrulous outpouring. Rabe is incapable of presenting a character for whom you feel no pity, and that is the case here. I would give anything to see her in A Cheery Soul.

This Glass Menagerie flirts perhaps a little too closely with sentimentality for my taste, although, I acknowledge, perhaps Tennessee Williams would disagree with me. The play can certainly take it. What a privilege to see such fine work. A couple of technical points: the lack of synchronisation between vision and sound on the sceeens was disconcerting and not terribly useful, and the set, splendid as it is from front-on, presents sightline difficulties for those at the sides. That’s unfair to audiences.

I’d never seen Howie the Rookie; knew nothing about it; was too busy to do any research before I went. A two-hander, I was told when I got to the Old Fitz. Two monologues, each about 40 minutes long. They’re going to have to be good, I said. I may have shaken my head a little. Well … Good is a mealy-mouthed word in this context. One needs lots of syllables to get anywhere close. My head is still ringing with the intense colours, rhythms and images in playwright Mark O’Rowe’s text.

The monologues themselves are splendiferous; the performances are magic. The actors, Sean Hawkins and Andrew Henry, suck you into their orbit and make escape impossible. Henry may have gone at it a bit too pell-mell on opening night but that’s the worst – in fact the only – slight reservation I can offer.

The world into which O’Rowe thrusts us is ugly, violent and wildly alive, for as long as its denizens can stay breathing. We’re in a not so salubrious part of Dublin and the Howie, whose surname is Lee, needs to have a go at the Rookie, also name of Lee. Something about a friend’s mattress, on which friends doss, being infected with scabies, which everyone thinks must have been the fault of the Rookie. Then a larger problem looms, that of the not-to-be-messed-with Ladyboy and his fighting fish, which somehow meet a premature end.

The world is bleak beyond compare and the language that describes it intoxicating beyond description. You can see, smell, taste and feel every last moment.

Apart from the casting, the smartest move director Toby Schmitz made was to let designer Lisa Mimmocchi do almost nothing except take stuff away. The Old Fitz space is rendered almost entirely bare, except for two chairs on which Hawkins and Henry sit – both are beautifully present (in both the physical sense and the way actors use the word) for the length of the piece – and, heartbreakingly, a tiny overturned chair in the back corner. You’ll have to see the play to find out what that means. Alexander Berlage’s lighting design and Jeremy Silver’s sound design complete the picture, at once bracingly austere and pregnant with meaning.

Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre’s Sondheim on Sondheim is an entertaining, although over-long, tribute to the master. Songs you know – Children Will Listen, Send in the Clowns, Losing My Mind, Being Alive – are juxtaposed with less familiar material. Binding everything together are film clips of Sondheim talking about his life and work. This revue was created to honour Sondheim when he turned 80 in 2010 and covers familiar, much-loved territory for anyone who counts themselves a Sondheim devotee. Anyone who isn’t a devotee wouldn’t necessarily be converted, however. First, it very much helps to know the context of the songs; and second, while director Jay James-Moody has assembled a confident, experienced cast, he doesn’t have singers who can erase memories of the greatest interpreters of Sondheim’s work. And, fairly or not, they are who one thinks of when songs are performed in a cabaret context. It also didn’t help that Monique Sallé’s choreography was over-busy on too many occasions.

Sallé multitasks here, as she has for other Squabbalogic shows, by being a bright presence in the eight-member ensemble – the others are Blake Erickson, Rob Johnson, Louise Kelly, Debora Krizak, Phillip Lowe, Christy Sullivan and Dean Vince – in which everyone has a strong moment. What they can’t do is escape the pièce d’occasion nature of the work. It had its time and place in 2010 and doesn’t travel particularly well.

The Glass Menagerie runs until November 2; Howie the Rookie runs until October 25; Sondheim on Sondheim runs until October 18.

Carrie the Musical

Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre, Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, Sydney, November 15.

YOU want to talk about a Broadway flop? Carrie the Musical will have to work harder. We read in yesterday’s The New York Times of investors reeling at the news of the closing announcement for Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark. Yes, the show has been running since November 2010, but that span includes an unprecedented number of previews and the weekly running costs are so high that in recent months Spider-Man has struggled to cover costs. The loss is projected to be $US60 million.

The 1988 version of Carrie the Musical – the current Sydney production is of the 2012 revision, which had a short Off-Broadway run – lost about $US7 million or $US8 million, depending on who you believe. It’s large amount to be sure, and Carrie had only five performances after the preview period. Not a success by any means, but the standard-bearer for Broadway flops? It does seem unfair. It’s as if the subject-matter of Carrie spilled over into life. There are many nerds, geeks and perceived failures around, but when the brutal in-crowd decides to home in on one target, that individual gets to be the universal punching bag. Why, there’s even a book called Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops, by Ken Mandelbaum. (It’s a most entertaining read; I recommend it.)

Before getting to Squabbalogic’s production, it’s worth revisiting some of the Great White Way’s disasters just to put things into perspective. As you’ll see I think even in revised form Carrie the Musical has only intermittent merits, but it wasn’t a bad decision by Squabbalogic  to stage it. There is much love among avid music-theatre fans for something with Carrie’s history and Squabbalogic is a gutsy little company with an eye to provocative and unusual projects (such as its most recent show, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson).

In January this year The New Yorker‘s Michael Shulman did an entertaining round-up of opinion about which musical deserves the title of worst flop. There were many candidates, including Into the Light, a 1986 musical about the Shroud of Turin (nominated by Paul Rudnik). Frank Rich, The New York Times’s chief theatre critic from 1980 to 1993, says Carrie was far from the worst, and so bad it was almost good. In fact, he described it in his review as “a typical music-theatre botch”. (Rich’s Carrie review was, however, considered a key reason for the show’s very brief tenure on Broadway.) Rich likes Legs Diamond as a strong candidate for best worst. Michael Riedel of The New York Post cites Senator Joe, about Joe McCarthy. He says: “It ran exactly a performance and a half – they closed it at intermission, if I’m not mistaken.” He says his favourite fiasco is the first preview of Spider-man: Turn off the Dark and its three and a half hour first act.

As I mention it below in my Squabbalogic review, I need to point out that Rich describes the 1983 Moose Murders as “the worst play I’ve ever seen on a Broadway stage”. Mind you, he was writing this in 1994 just after departing the theatre critics’ chair. He may well have seen worse as a civilian in the succeeding 20 years. Nevertheless, he did use it as a point of comparison when reviewing the original Carrie the Musical.

Another musical to get the Rich treatment was Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, unloved by him and many others on its premiere in 1981 (it lasted 16 performances). How wonderful to report that the Menier Chocolate Factory revival in London this year was a big hit, and it’s been possible to see the results in cinema screenings this month around the country.

But back to Carrie the Musical and the Squabbalogic production. What follows is the review that appeared in The Australian on November 18, with a couple of expansions.

Hilary Cole at the climax of Carrie. Photo: Michael Francis

Hilary Cole at the climax of Squabbalogic’s Carrie the Musical. Photo: Michael Francis

SMALL, smart, ambitious company Squabbalogic makes a gallant but doomed case for Carrie, a musical that, as any aficionado of the genre knows, has a fraught history. As such it is catnip to the cognoscenti. That’s just the way it works.

In 1988 the original musical version of Stephen King’s 1974 novel was a flop, despite the participation of the Royal Shakespeare Company – or perhaps that was part of the problem. Anyway, it got hammered by critics, chiefly the one who mattered most, Frank Rich of The New York Times. The Butcher of Broadway mentioned Carrie in the same breath as the notorious Moose Murders. (For the record, the 1983 Moose Murders closed the night it opened, and was described by New York magazine’s John Simon as looking as if it were staged by “a blind director repeatedly kicked in the groin”.)

Job done. Blood is a central motif in Carrie and the sharks smelled it. The show didn’t last a week.

But unlike its heroine, a girl with telekinetic powers oppressed beyond endurance by bullying schoolmates and her manically religious mother, Carrie the Musical wouldn’t die. It was revived as an Off-Broadway chamber piece last year and it’s this version we see from Squabbalogic.

Despite the tinkering Carrie unfortunately remains a misfit, saddled with a wonky flashback structure, odd tonal shifts and a score (by Michael Gore) that only intermittently gets the blood pumping, if you’ll forgive me. The bigger problems are a book (Lawrence D. Cohen) that flattens all the secondary characters and lyrics (Dean Pitchford) that too often resemble the motto for today: “What does it cost to be kind?” The song Unsuspecting Hearts is mind-altering drivel in itself and in its relation to the drama.

Most fatally Carrie the Musical has the weightless, sketchy feel of a piece that just knows the audience members will be familiar with the influential 1976 Brian de Palma film so they can fill in the texture and detail themselves.

Director Jay James-Moody, to his credit, plays with a straight bat where it may have been tempting to camp things up as a diversionary tactic. Cohen told The New York Times last year the creative team emphatically did not want a Rocky Horror version, and James-Moody has played fair. As it is, though, his limited means unsparingly illuminate the show’s weak spots. (Mind you, on Broadway in 1988 a big budget did exactly the same thing. Discuss.)

Margi de Ferranti and Hilary Cole in Carrie. Photo Michael Francis

Margi de Ferranti and Hilary Cole in Carrie. Photo: Michael Francis

The production is best – in fact, very strong indeed – in the series of mother-daughter scenes where the themes of sexual awakening, religious fervour and a heart-breakingly misplaced sense of exceptionalism collide with a thunderclap. Margi de Ferranti (Margaret) and newcomer Hilary Cole (Carrie) are mesmerising and have the richest music and lyrics by far. And then it’s back to the depressingly one-note (and over-amplified) shenanigans of Carrie’s classmates, made tolerable, just, by the fine singing of Adele Parkinson (good girl Sue), Rob Johnson (good boy Tommy) and Prudence Holloway (bitch Chris).

There is excellent work from Mark Chamberlain’s small band and Sean Minahan’s evocative, impressionistic design is another plus. A veil needs to be drawn over Shondelle Pratt’s clumsy, uninspired choreography.

Squabbalogic does an honourable job of dealing with the incendiary ending, albeit needing a bit of audience indulgence. It’s not the production’s fault, however, that Carrie the Musical then sputters to a close. Remember the film’s heart-stopping ending? It’s nothing like that.

Until November 30.