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Toyah's the main draw for Calamity Jane's Wild tale



Review by David Munro

CALAMITY Jane, which is now running at the Shaftesbury Theatre, is the latest in the current fashion for turning musical films into musical plays to reach the West End.

Adapted from a 1953 Doris Day film vehicle, with a score by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster, which was designed to cash in on her success as Annie in the splendid MGM version of Annie Get Your Gun of three years earlier (it even had the same co-star Harold Keel) the adaptor, Charles K Freeman has made the best of a bad job. Sadly, his best isn't good enough.

The story line, which tells of the taming of a mid-western cowgirl, Calamity Jane, by a theatrical ladies maid combined with the usual romantic devices - Jane loves soldier, who loves maid, who gets him, thereby driving Jane into arms of gambler, with whom she has had a love hate relationship for years - may sound familiar, as indeed it is. Dressed up, however, with rousing songs and dances, and a leading lady who does everything bar sell tickets and ice cream, it adds up to a harmless and pleasant evening in the theatre.

The main asset of the show, as I have indicated, is its leading lady, Toyah Willcox, as the eponymous heroine, who gives a performance of such vitality and verve that one wonders whether she has escaped from some computer-animated film.

She dances, sings, performs pratfalls and acrobatic stunts, literally climbing up and hanging off the scenery on several occasions, with such aplomb and energy that while it is fascinating to watch, it is also some what exhausting for the onlooker.

As a display of talent and physical energy, it is something to marvel at; particularly when one remembers that she has graced the stage for well over 20 years, a memory her performance quickly dispels.

Apart from the physical aspect of the part, she also manages to breathe life into the cardboard character she is called upon to represent. She convinces you that Jane is a genuinely warm-hearted and fragile girl under her tomboy exterior so that the final clinch with her wooden Indian of a lover is almost acceptable.

As the lover in question, Wild Bill Hickok, Michael Cormick, sings up a storm but, like Howard Keel in the film, can do little with the character. I thought that given a better part he could have fulfilled the promise he showed but not as the stereotyped gambler with a heart, which has so littered the American musical scene since Gaylord Ravenal applied for a job on a showboat.

As it was, I found him an adequate partner for Miss Willcox's antics, but nothing more.

As the maid, Katie Brown, with, as a number in the show puts it, a woman's touch, Kellie Ryan was a delightful foil to Miss Willcox's hoyden and their scenes together came over with sincerity and charm. In her own right she proved herself an amusing performer as she strutted and vamped her way through numbers which in other less capable hands would have been risible if not downright embarrassing.

The rest of the small but energetic cast provide a good background for the principals and manhandled the plot and scenery whenever either required moving along.

The two who stood out of this hardworking and excellent ensemble were Abigail Ashton, as Susan, the saloon keeper's niece, and Phil Ormerod, as her lover, Francis Fryer, who had been employed by her uncle under the impression he was an actress: Frances/Francis, get it? which about sums up the intellectual quality of the plot. Despite that, they both sing and dance well and keep the plot going on the numerous occasions when it flags.

The scenery, by Simon Higlett, betrays the touring origins of the show, being mainly mobile, and pushed off and on by the cast as part of the action.

When it was solid, such as a stage coach, bar counter or the miniature houses which represented the town, it was danced or sat upon which gave a rather neo-realistic feeling to the show.

Whether this was the designer's conception or that of the director, Ed Curtis, is open to question, but no matter who's idea it was, is to be congratulated as it added a fanciful element which ameliorated the banalities of the book and the choreography.

This latter was the responsibility of Craig Revel Horwood, who seemed to have seen Fosse and Chicago and emulated their dancing idioms without quite understanding the basics of their style.

He was lucky to have a cast of dancers who were sufficiently professional to make his misconceptions palatable but to find choreography of this standard on the London stage makes one realise that Contact died in vain. Come back Susan Stroman - all is forgiven.

The score, by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis, with an 'i' Webster contains the Oscar-winning Secret Love, but not much else.

There is a half hearted-attempt at an Anything You Can Do type number in I Can Do Without You, a show-stopper as performed by Miss Willcox and Mr Cormick, and a tuneful ballad The Black Hills of Dakota, well known to those who are old enough to own the Doris Day soundtrack album.

The rest of the score merely gave the cast opportunities to flex their talents without aspiring to memorability.

Calamity Jane is by no means a complete calamity. In spite of the mediocrity of the book, score and choreography, Toyah Willcox's performance alone is worth the price of admission and, as an extra bonus, there is the rest of the cast, whose performances deserve better than this.

So go and cheer them even if the rest of the show is, like the name of the town in which it is set, is just dead wood.

Calamity Jane adapted for the stage from the screenplay of the Warner Brother's musical film of the same name by Charles K. Freeman . Music by Sammy Fain, Lyrics by Paul Francis Webster, Directed by Ed Curtis, Designed by Simon Higlett, Choreography by Craig Revel Horwood, Lighting by James Whiteside, Sound by Susan Whitehorn Musical Director - Robert Cousins. WITH: Toyah Wilcox - Michael Cormick - Kellie Ryan - Garry Kilby - Duncan Smith - Abigail Adams - Phil Ormerod - Ahmet Ahmet - Kat Baker - Alan Bradshaw - Lynsey Britton - Michael Broughton - John Coates - Gareth Derrick - Emma Dodd - Carey Hainsby - Paul Hemming - Ian Gareth Jones - Cameron Leigh. Produced by Tristan Baker (original production in association with Northampton Theatre Ltd.) at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London, WC2.

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