There's something about Calamity Jane that smells of the 1950s. When women were being exhorted to put their menfolk first and become homemakers, this slice of artificial American history would have been just the thing to reinforce the casual sexism of the times.
After all, a song stating that a "woman's touch" would be all that was needed to convert a ramshackle shack into what estate agents would now call a bijou cottage would have been accepted by both sexes. And of course, 1950s' audiences would have been blind to the lesbian undertones and slices of high camp of the piece.
However, as Ed Curtis's production decides to play the whole thing straight. It's as if 50 years of showbiz history has passed us by, and we're watching a piece of the past, without any post-modern touches. It's all curiously dated.
Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster's musical hasn't aged well either. Of course, "Secret Love" and "Deadwood Stage" are fine songs and hold up well, but the rest are a decidedly mixed bunch - and the production's lacklustre dancing doesn't help lift the atmosphere.
What's more, at the West End press night, the acoustics were dreadful. From the middle of the stalls, too many words were indistinct. I wasn't sure whether this was a problem with the theatre acoustics, malfunctioning radio mikes or poor diction (or a combination of all three). Certainly, Garry Kilby as Danny Kilmartin was having a torrid time with his mike, which seemed to inhibit his performance.
The other problem is Toyah Willcox. Whisper it softly, but she's too old for this part. That would be acceptable if she had the singing voice to compensate - but she hasn't. It's far too weak to carry the lead part in a West End show. It was good to see her fellow jungle celebrities in the audience (well, Fash, Wayne and Sian), but Wilcox seemed to be struggling from the outset. That said, she certainly isn't short of enthusiasm - flinging herself into all proceedings with gusto, she very nearly carries it off.
It's also hard to get enthusiastic about Simon Higlett's set. There's a delicious Spinal Tap moment when the curtains reveal some miniature houses duly straddled by the chorus to an unintentionally humorous effect.
The only real saving grace of the evening is Michael Cormick's Wild Bill Hickok who doesn't put a foot wrong. A commanding presence, a superb singing voice with admirable diction, he's a joy. Phil Ormerod and Abigail Aston as the young lovers, Francis and Susan acquit themselves well, too.
Calamity doesn't quite live down to its name - it's doesn't rank as a great theatrical disasters. However, if it's trying to pass itself off as a proper West End musical, its audience is entitled to expect something a bit more magical. After all, while it might look like a 1950s' production, it's certainly not charging 1950s' prices.
- Maxwell Cooter
Note: The following review dates from September 2002 and an earlier tour stop of this production. For current cast details, please see performances listings.
Calamity Jane is a rip roarin’ musical, boasting unforgettable numbers, including "The Deadwood Stage", "Black Hills of Dakota" and "Windy City". Incredibly, the larger-than-life fast-shooting heroine who prefers male attire and never looks before she leaps into the trouble that inspired her moniker, is actually based on a real frontierswoman. And yes folks, Wild Bill Hickock, the man in whom she meets her match, is for real too!
According to the programme, Calamity went to great lengths to demonstrate that she posed no threat when she rode through ‘Indian country’. It’s a pity then that the musical shows signs of outdated political incorrectness when her (admittedly untrue) boast of killing thirty ‘Injuns’, soon after she first appears perched atop the Deadwood Stage, is played for laughs. It makes the lyric 'beautiful Indian country that I love' feel distinctly uncomfortable to me.
Of course, you could argue that it’s a period piece, but there are other ways in which at times it strikes the wrong note for me. Why do the only visible female population of Deadwood appear to have almost nothing to wear but tatty – though undeniably sexy – underwear? Kellie Ryan makes a delicious wannabe singer, but it seems a shame that the acme of her ambitions is to titillate dozy male customers at Deadwood's saloon. And I find the number "A Woman’s Touch" a touch too cute.
Robertson Hare played a character in farces, whose catch phrase was ‘Oh Calamity!’ I’d be a real killjoy to pinch it to describe the production. Toyah Willcox’s Jane is a fierce bundle of blonde ambition, banishing images of Doris Day in the film, though she does have to hit the high notes running. It would be churlish not to applaud the whole cast for matching her high-energy performance – from Alasdair Harvey’s amused and amusing Bill to the committed chorus. A live orchestra (musical direction, Peter White) adds to the excitement. And the show gets off to a good start with Simon Higlett’s miniature Wild West Town revealed behind giant swinging wooden doors.
But a combination of the failure of the sound system at the midweek matinee (so it was hard to tell if Simon Whitehorn's sound design was at fault too) and rather unimaginative direction by Ed Curtis and choreography by Craig Revel Horwood ultimately made the production seem uninspired. Perhaps this one’s just not worth reviving, despite the great tunes.
- Judi Herman (reviewed at the Derngate Theatre, Northampton)