REVIEW: Calamity Jane (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, May 2)

Jodie Prenger as Calamity Jane. Photo credit Manuel Harlan
Jodie Prenger as Calamity Jane. Photo credit Manuel Harlan

Hot on the heels of feisty Annie Oakley getting her gun and her man in the recent national tour of the Irving Berlin musical comes another gun-totin’ heroine in the form of Martha Jane Canary – better known as Deadwood’s sharp-shooting, wise-cracking Calamity Jane.

The true story of this girl of the golden Wild West would make a great drama, but Doris Day ensured that a musical hit is as good as a myth when she starred alongside Howard Keel in the tremendous 1953 Hollywood version, which was turned into a stage show a few years later.

There is no denying that Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster’s whip-crack-away score is evergreen and there can’t be many in the audience who aren’t tapping their feet and humming along happily when the likes of Deadwood Stage, Windy City and The Black Hills of Dakota (which the enthusiastic Brighton audience took to be a community singalong) are performed pretty darn perfectly by this strong cast.

When you bear in mind how often other musicals are staged it seems incredible to think that Calamity Jane only had its first appearance on a UK stage back in 1979, when Barbara Windsor played the title role, starring alongside Eric Flynn and Norman Vaughan, and the only major productions since were with Louise Gold in 1994 and Toyah Willcox in 2002.

Given that information one might be tempted to wonder if the show itself just isn’t up to reviving – certainly Annie Get Your Gun, which in film terms Calamity Jane sought to emulate in the early 50s, seems somewhat creaky and distinctly un-PC when staged today.

This Watermill Theatre Production, however, which has been on the road since September, is absolutely everything a touring production should be: a superbly talented cast who can boast more than a theatrical triple threat (They sing! They dance! They act! They play instruments!); charm, humour, pace, and pathos; outstanding choreography by Nick Winston, beautifully realised; a pleasing, serve-all set by Matthew Wright, with imaginative use of props and which manages to be both dusty Golden Garter saloon and glitzy music hall; and a quality director in Nikolai Foster, who not only ensures the audience has a good time, but the cast clearly is too.

There’s not a bad link in the company chain and everyone matters, not just because they’re all playing the musical instruments in trademark Watermill style but because the stars don’t hog the limelight, and the feelgood factor present among them is infectious.

The plot is simple, though certainly has more depth and breadth to it than Annie Get Your Gun. Local saloon owner Henry Miller (Anthony Dunn) thinks he has booked a famous actress to perform in Deadwood but a misunderstanding means it’s the male Francis rather than female Frances Fryer who arrives – a performance of boundless versatility from Bobby Delaney, who manages to direct from the piano in addition to everything else, and who has the assurance of a seasoned variety pro; there’s a lovely moment where the traditional Weather Dance Scene between Francis and Susan (Sioned Saunders) becomes a glorious piano duet. It’s up to Calamity to calm the situation by racing to Chicago to bring back a heart-throb music hall performer who all the men have drooled over on cigarette cards, but another mistake means she brings back her maid, Katie (a lovely performance from Phoebe Street).

The adorable Jodie Prenger glitters yet again as Calamity Jane, finding the right balance between the comedy, the romance, and the tomboyish cheek. She is as feisty as you’ll find ‘em, she’s a pro on the spoons, and her performance of the mellifluous Secret Love is a showstopper to end all showstoppers, which would surely even have Doris Day sniffling into her hankie.

Tom Lister is quite a revelation as Wild Bill Hickok, with a sparkling stage presence to match Jodie’s and providing another showstopping and heart-melting moment as he strums the guitar while singing Higher Than a Hawk. Of course he is besotted with Katie but is really the perfect match for Calam – and Jodie looks just as much at home in buckskin as she does a fairytale wedding dress!

Alex Hammond is gorgeously good looking and smouldering as Danny, who Calam has tipped her cap at, but who is also in love with Katie, and Justin Wilman steps in very well to replace an indisposed Paul Kissaun as Rattlesnake. There’s also some terrific hoe downs and plenty of other vibrant dance numbers featuring the experienced and energetic Martin McCarthy and Matthew James Hinchliffe.

Calamity Jane is bold and brassy, brimming with confidence and zest, and as good a show as you will see anywhere. And if you haven’t uttered a good dozen yeeeeeee-haaaaaas by the time you get home, then you’re just too hard to please and need several shots of fizzy sasparillas.