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
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
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.