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.

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown

Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, July 6

I’m sure the good folk at Charlie Hebdo magazine won’t mind when I say, after seeing You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown at the Hayes last night, that je suis Charlie. I must also say that je suis Lucy, or at least the better bits of her (I hope). But really we all are Charlie, as cartoonist Charles M. Schultz understood. Somewhere still within us is the four-year-old that Charlie was when he first appeared, and the five, six, seven and eight-year-old he became. The klutzy kid’s hopes and fears earn our laughter because we know them intimately. We undoubtedly still feel those things, except now we know enough to hide them. We make ourselves opaque; Charlie innocently lays it all out there. As a friend said last night, the emotion is unedited.

The musical – well, more a collection of gags and aphorisms, some of which are put to music – started life Off-Broadway in 1967 (with Clark Gesner’s book, music and lyrics), and was a big success. On Broadway it wasn’t. This is a delicate comedy not suited to the Great White Way’s need for red meat.

You're a good man Charlie Brown_5-7-16_Noni Carroll

Sheridan Harbridge and Mike Whalley. Photo: Noni Carroll

Shaun Rennie’s production, delivered by the excellent Georgia Hopkins (set and costumes), Hugh Hamilton (lights), Tim Hope (AV design) and Jed Silver (sound design), beautifully preserves the essential fragility of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. There is no set to speak of, just a set of side drops on which colours wash. Snoopy gets his red dog house, Lucy her doctor’s stall. Schroeder his piano and Linus his blanket (how not?) but otherwise everything is kept nice and simple as befits a show in which the big production numbers are about Linus’s security blanket and Schroeder’s passion for Beethoven. Michael Tyack’s musical direction could not be more sympathetic to this jaunty, uplifting music.

Rennie’s cast is sweet, funny and heart-meltingly vulnerable – yes, even Sheridan Harbridge’s Lucy as she carries out a survey to ascertain her level of crabbiness while hoping to get a tick for her ability to “sparkle in company”. Nat Jobe’s Schroeder, Ben Gerrard’s Linus and Laura Murphy’s Sally each has a welcome turn in the spotlight and all praise to choreographer Andy Dexterity, not only for his splendid dances but for stepping late into the role of Snoopy and making him quite the sophisticate. Snoopy’s Red Baron number gives Dexterity a chance to channel Bob Fosse very amusingly so it feels a bit curmudgeonly (Lucy-like?) to say it’s the show’s most dispensable song. Despite the many joys of this production You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown is just a bit too long for its material and could very usefully be a slightly slimmer one-act piece.

Don’t let that caveat put you off though because then you’d miss Mike Whalley’s Charlie – the gorgeous beating heart of the piece. Whalley somehow manages to turn his tall, grown-up self into the very essence of a lovely little boy who knows there are lots of things he’s not good at but keeps on trying anyway. In his own way he is as indomitable as Lucy – more self-aware, certainly – and the pluckiest of troupers. It would be a very hard heart that did not love him, and this production, to bits.

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, runs until July 30.

80 Minutes No Interval, Swansong

Old Fitzroy Theatre, March 15

“A SHORT show’s a good show,” critics carol to one another, pleased to discover that what we’re about to see will all be over in 60 minutes, 70 minutes, 80 or perhaps 90, straight through. One hundred minutes is usually as long as it gets without an interval, although at the Adelaide Festival Pina Bausch’s Nelken clocked in at two unbroken hours. It happens, but not often.

It’s not that critics don’t want to be there. We turn up for hundreds of shows a year, which must indicate some fondness for the theatre. It’s just that the evening may represent the third, fourth, fifth or even sixth time in the week that one has turned out. It’s understandable that the occasional earlyish night might be seen as a boon.

Sydney’s Old Fitzroy Theatre is a place where the short show is frequently found, a situation that enables it to run two productions in tandem, one starting at 7.30pm and the late show at 9.30pm. That is where, last night, I saw two shows lasting about 80 minutes, no interval. One of them was actually called that.

In Travis Cotton’s black-as-black satirical comedy a writer, Louis (Ryan Johnson), is a really sweet guy and a disaster magnet. He’s a writer who can’t write, a theatre critic whose job is wiped out by technology, a man who can’t order a meal in a restaurant without making a meal of it, a boyfriend who can’t entirely commit and a son whose parents don’t want him around. He was, of course, one of those babies who screamed day and night.

Ryan Johnson in 80 Minutes No Interval (c) Rupert Reid

Ryan Johnson in 80 Minutes No Interval. Photo: Rupert Reid

He is the ill-starred centre around which ever-more surreal events whirl. Meanwhile, Cotton has the happiest time giving a solid whack to sacred cultural cows. When Louis’s girlfriend Claire (Sheridan Harbridge) has an extended – and acutely observed – rant against her pet hates in the theatre you can tick off just about every show you’ve seen in the subsidised theatre over the past couple of years. But theatre gets off lightly. The spawn of Satan would be more acceptable in polite society than monstrous publisher Dan Kurtz (Robin Goldsworthy, rocking the room).

Cotton, who also directed, has a sharp eye for absurdity and is happy to go the distance and beyond, as the tour-de-force Kurtz scene amply demonstrates. Not everything is up to that heady standard and 80 Minutes No Interval doesn’t always hit the mark, but you know what? It doesn’t matter. The audience around me was howling.

CONOR McDermottroe’s Swansong, which follows 80 Minutes No Interval, tills familiar soil. A young Irishman is the sole narrator of his stunted, blighted life, a story he tells with a fair degree of self-awareness, some dissembling and a soaring poeticism. One thinks immediately of Howie the Rookie, a double monologue (and far more complex drama) by Mark O’Rowe presented at the Old Fitz in 2014. The male misfits in these plays lead violent, volatile lives but the act of direct audience engagement and the intimacy of the revelations makes them perversely and troublingly seductive, especially when given performances of the calibre of Andrew Henry and Sean Hawkins in Howie the Rookie and Andre de Vanny in Swansong.

Swansong March copy

Andre de Vanny. Photo: Robert Catto

 

For Swansong’s Occi Byrne, it counts as a signal act of great restraint when he doesn’t set fire to a house after he’s splashed petrol around it or he decides, on reflection, not to kill the boyfriend of a woman he’s sweet on. Just about everything in his life is a negative, from the fatherless upbringing to the abortive stint in the army (he just can’t get the arms and legs coordinated when marching) and the extremely unfortunate incident at the social security centre. He’s full of rage and perhaps not entirely right in the head after a stupid lark went wrong years ago. And, this being an Irish play about deprivation, Occi is a great romantic. When we first meet him he is feeding a swan – he calls her Agnes – and it gives him comfort to think about the beauty, strength and freedom swans represent. It’s a pathetic, mostly tawdry tale, given an electrifying performance under the direction of Greg Carroll that lifts its material from bathos to intense tragedy. De Vanny is a wiry man, balletically light and quick on his feet, whose every molecule vibrates with energy as he spills out Occi’s confidences or ducks and weaves in readiness for a scrap. Hair-trigger rages flare and subside without warning, and then he is smiling and laughing, delighting in some rare, small pleasure.

The unconfined, disastrous roller-coaster that is Occi’s life is revealed in all its messiness through a performance of extraordinary detail, discipline and touching emotional openness. That you care for Occi is a miracle, but you do.

Swansong was first seen in Sydney late last year and has only a short return season.

80 Minutes No Interval ends April 9.

Swansong ends March 26.