Review: Calamity is a whip-cracking musical

Jodie Prenger as Calamity Jane
Jodie Prenger as Calamity Jane

Whip-cracking her way from Black Hills of Dakota to Milton Keynes Theatre this week and taking the role of Calamity Jane is Jodie Prenger, winner of BBC Television’s ‘I’d Do Anything’, writes Alan Wooding.

She plays the sassy, pistol packing, rootin’ tootin’ frontierswoman made famous by Doris Day in a fabulous musical show adapted for the stage by Charles K Freeman which is loosely based on the real life story of Missouri-born Indian scout Martha Jane Cannary.

This Watermill Theatre production of Calamity Jane also stays pretty true to director David Butler’s 1953 film with Blackpool lass Prenger joined on stage by Emmerdales’ Tom Lister who plays hard drinking, poker playing Wild Bill Hickok.

With the unladylike Calamity riding shotgun into Deadwood City aboard a stagecoach, she’s very soon in trouble thanks to her talent for

outrageous boasting and saying the wrong thing at the wrong time … and that clearly rubs Wild Bill up the wrong way!

The 15 strong cast led by Prenger and Lister certainly showcase their talents as all the musical instruments are played live on stage, the actors switching seemlessly from handling a banjo to a double bass, a piano to guitar and from mandolin to fiddle, accordion, chello or ukulele at the drop of a stetson.

Prenger’s voice is perfectly suited to the show’s best known numbers including Sammy Fain/Paul Francis Webster’s Oscar-winning classics ‘Secret Love’ while she also belts out ‘Deadwood Stage’ and ‘Just Blew in From the Windy City’ … and while Jodie isn’t quite Doris Day, she’s a damn good substitute!

Some had questioned her television ‘find a star’ success, but Jodie is a proper leading lady and, despite his original misgivings, Andrew Lloyd Webber soon agreed that she was worthy of the key role of Nancy in Lionel Bart’s Oliver! which was brought to the West End by Cameron Mackintosh.

Calamity Jane is best described as a sepia-tinged musical designed by Matthew Wright which centres around the city of Deadwood and in particular, the Golden Garter saloon run by bowler hatted Henry ‘Millie’ Miller (played by Roy Hudd lookalike, Anthony Dunn).

It’s a place where gold miners sit staring at their cigarette cards while dreaming of meeting (or even dating) saucy Chicago actress Miss Adelaide Adams (Christina Tedders).

However, when Miller books what he thinks is an equally scantily clad lady in Frances Fryer (Rob Delaney) to entertain his customers, there’s a real shock for the rowdy drinkers when Frances turns out to be a Francis … and he’s not at all female!

Naturally Calamity is to blame but she tries to make up for it by going back to Chicago to fetch Adelaide Adams. But once again she gets it wrong and instead – while completely unbeknown to her – she delivers pretty Katie Brown (the equally pretty Phoebe Street), Miss Adams’ maid who fancies herself as a singer.

The talented Sioned Saunders is Miller’s niece Susan who plays a least four different instruments and enjoys a great piano duet with Rob Delaney, the show’s musical director.

In fact the piano becomes part of the set as an oven, a salon bar and even the stagecoach when put together with a high step-stool, four chairs and a couple of parasols to bounce along with Rattlesnake (Paul Kissaun) in the driving seat and Calamity riding shotgun.

Meanwhile Justin Wilman (Charlie), Jamie Noar (Hank), Matthew James Hinchliffe (Buck), Giovanna Ryan (Flo) and dance captain Martin McCarthy (Joe) are all equally talented musicians and have excellent voices.

I particularly loved the thigh-slapping hoedown scene which might have stolen the show had it not been for the number that sums up Calamity Jane’s overpowering boasting: ‘Careless With The Truth’ which is sung with gusto by the whole cast.

There’s plenty of comedy as wild-haired stagecoach driver Rattlesnake becomes the butt of Calamity’s jokes while Jon Bonner is great as Doc with the dashing Alex Hammond playing US Army Lieutenant Danny Gilmartin, Calamity’s first love interest!

However when the second act opens with Tom Lister’s rendition of ‘My Heart Is Higher Than A Hawk’, it shows Wild Bill’s inner feelings for Calamity. In fact it all gets pretty sentimental with plenty of emotion from the leading characters as Gilmartin and Kate Brown get together much to Calamity’s dismay.

The Golden Garter saloon stage also opens up to reveal Calamity Jane’s hovel of a home which she initially shares with Katie although they fall out over Lieutenant Gilmartin. But as predicted, it’s Wild Bill who wins Calamity’s hand after she finally gets to dress as a women and casts off her buckskin.

Calamity Jane is a full-on show set in the summer of 1876. It’s a top drawer musical directed by Nikolai Foster while Richard G Jones’ clever lighting also plays a large part, offering constant mood swings with the dust and smoke-filled cabins adding to the depth and atmosphere.

Matthew Wright’s set features two balconies allowing the actors to play their instruments without detracting from the on-stage action while it’s thanks to Catherine Jayes orchestration that the whole show goes with a swing and resulted in a standing ovation from Tuesday’s opening night audience.

‘Take Me Back To The Black Hills’ is the tune that links the whole show and even after leaving the auditorium, Doris Day’s haunting voice followed me into the foyer and out towards the John Lewis car park!

Calamity Jane – which runs for 2 hours 20 minutes including the interval – plays Milton Keynes Theatre until this Saturday (November 30) with tickets starting at £10 rising to £39 (booking fees apply) which are bookable by calling the box office on 08448 717652 or go online at www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes