New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham
Based on the 1950s Warner Brothers movie starring Doris Day and Howard Keel, Calamity Jane was adapted for the stage ten years later: including new songs purposely written for the adaptation in addition to the OSCAR winning Best Original Song “Secret Love”. The story, whilst based on real life figure Jane Cannary, has little to do with the original person herself but more a Hollywood version – a stereotypically romantic storyline and ‘Hollywood’ ending.
Ahead of stepping into his new role of Artistic Director at Leicester Curve, Nikolai Foster’s direction is inventive; he uses the space well and strikes the right balance between the theatrical style and the realism to be found in the story, whilst keeping the production light. His work using furniture to resemble the cart is a very nice touch. The choreography from Nick Winston is cleverly organised and gives the hoe-down dances a grand feel despite the little space he and his dancers have to work with.
The set is well designed by Matthew Wright and creates the saloon feel perfectly, it is detailed and allows room for the actors to place their instruments whilst not in use, added to the costumes it creates a quaint picture. However the lighting is somewhat overblown; the addition of colour to certain scenes, particularly around the proscenium arch, is distracting and does nothing for the scenes except take away realism in the acting.
Actor/musician shows are becoming a trend these days, with budgeting reasons likely to be high on the list of why, however they still remain hard to pull off convincing; having to cast instrumentalists may mean their acting is not as good as someone who could have got the role if they hadn’t needed such a skill. All the performers play the music live, some of them playing more than one instrument over the course of the production. They manage to perform the choreography at the same time, which is impressive indeed – however miming that the instruments are guns seems a little step too far.
Jodie Prenger is well cast as Calamity Jane, she has the presence and gusto required to take the part. She has a warmth and charm about her, which we first saw in the BBC talent show I’d Do Anything which allows for a likeable character despite the brashness of the role. Her voice does sound a little too raspy at times, perhaps tired, but this can be forgiven. Tom Lister is every bit a leading man as Wild Bill Hickok, his presence on stage is undeniable and his grasp of the characters wry humour a joy. He sings with great musicality, and his self accompanied guitar rendition of “Higher Than A Hawk” is delivered perfectly with great introspection and delicacy.
The underwritten but not under-relished character parts are perhaps the greatest joy of the evening, with their caricature features that make them distinct; a distraction from the dryness of the Hollywood romance. Rob Delaney, as Francis Fryer, acts also acts as Musical Director, his piano duet with Sioned Saunders is a treat to watch and Phoebe Street, as Katie Brown, shows what a triple threat she is in a delightful performance.
The story isn’t fantastically written, it is slow to get moving and peaks too early, but the performers makes sure it has heart and enough enthusiasm to get by – nothing spectacular, but good energetic wild west musical fun.
Touring until Sat 8th August 2015