Book: Charles K Freeman
Music: Sammy Fain
Lyrics: Paul Francis Webster
Director: Nikolai Foster
Reviewer: James Garrington
When originally released in 1953, the film version of Calamity Jane was immensely popular, with a combination of good musical numbers and the casting of Doris Day and Howard Keel in the central rôles. Like the film, this production features some well-known faces: winner of TV casting show I’d do Anything Jodie Prenger (Calamity Jane) and Emmerdale actor Tom Lister (Wild Bill) – and they certainly bring in the crowds, packing the Curve on a very hot evening.
When the owner of the Golden Garter Henry Miller (Anthony Dunn) has a mishap with one of his stage acts, Calamity Jane heads off to Chicago determined to bring back a real star of the theatre, Adelaid Adams (Christina Tedders). Things don’t go entirely to plan, though, and the townsfolk take a shine to the new girl, leaving Calamity struggling against her jealousy and pride. It takes her long-standing enemy Wild Bill (Tom Lister) to make her realise where her future lies.
Director Nikolai Foster has taken a fresh approach to this very traditional musical, in a number of ways, with some working better than others. Prenger’s Calamity Jane is a long way from the almost sugar-sweet Doris Day performance that many people will know. She brings a raw and rough edge to the rôle, which is both refreshing and appropriate to the character. She delivers some excellent vocals too, and a tender Secret Love works well as a contrast to the brash exterior she portrays elsewhere. Opposite Prenger is Tom Lister (Wild Bill Hickok), also in good voice with a nicely-controlled Higher Than a Hawk – and some good rope-twirling skills too, as he proves to be quite adept with the lasso. There are many other excellent performances here, including Sophie Ragavelas as a beautifully bubbly Katie Brown, and Alex Hammond as Danny, the man determined to win her heart, with good support from Anthony Dunn (Henry) and Bobby Delaney (Francis) – who manages to be Musical Director as well as appearing on stage, and therein lies one of the problems.
Foster has chosen to use a group of actor-musicians for this production – and there is no doubt that there are some very fine musicians among them, many playing four or more diverse instruments at different times during the show. Sometimes this works well – to have a hoedown backed by piano, guitar and banjo on stage feels entirely correct – but at other times it can be either distracting or totally inappropriate. To find a soloist, in the middle of nowhere in 1876, suddenly surrounded by a group of saxophone or trombone-players requires a large suspension of disbelief. There are also times when the players, in view, can distract from the solo work that is going on in front of them. As often these days, there is a standing set – an authentic-looking design by Matthew Wright, which works well for the big numbers but less well for some of the more intimate scenes which feel a bit lost on the large stage. A little more thought on lighting design could have addressed both of these difficulties.
These issues aside, overall the show works fairly well, and is clearly very popular. While the book is not one of the best, the music is well-known and memorable, and Foster has worked hard to find extra opportunities for humour with a number of nice touches throughout. Both the solo and chorus vocal work is excellent, and lively choreography by Nick Winston adds to the enjoyment. It’s good to see a different approach being taken to an otherwise traditional show, and well worth a visit.
Runs until 4th July