Calamity Jane

Rebecca Varidel
2nd Sep 2018


As history goes, Martha Jane Cannary (aka Calamity Jane) apparently met in Deadwood, but never married or even had a relationship with, Wild Bill Hickok. Facts we do know are Calamity Jane was a hard drinking woman, who wore sometimes wore men’s clothing, chewed tobacco and was reportedly quite handy with a gun. OK so I'm no historian, but personally I have a particularly soft spot for this fabulous individual as she just happens to be born on my birthday - or as she was born in 1852 perhaps I should correct that to I was born on hers.

I always loved the Doris Day movie musical version of her story and know all the songs, maybe even all the movie script too. Is that a sign of a misspent musical comedy youth, watching Calamity Jane too many times? It's a fun mid-century fantasy that, like many of the earlier penny novels that bring Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane together romantically, melds some of the historical facts with fiction and spins a Wild West yarn not unlike the way Calamity Jane herself used to spin a yarn in fact. Such as the one about Custer. It's in her autobiography but was proven untrue.

So, if ever there was a musical comedy from the golden era of entertainment that can handle a 21st century spin it is this one. The production was first performed at Hayes Theatre and is currently on at Belvoir Street.

"Her movements are all free and unstudied. Her conversation is animated, her language good, and her heart warm and generous. She imitates no one, is an original in herself, despises hypocrisy, and is easily melted to tears. She is generous, forgiving, kind-hearted, sociable, and yet when aroused, has all the daring and courage of the lion or the devil himself" How could you not want to do a musical about such a woman director Richard Carroll explains.

From the minute we enter the theatre we are in a time warp with Wild West characters greeting us. But there's a bloke on the Golden Garter Saloon stage with a Belvoir Street fleecy selling $5 beers. Although there won't be too many spoilers here, take this tip and extend it. Get to you seat as early as you can, and buy a beer on stage. Even better when you are booking your seats, although any view in Belvoir will be grand, make sure you pay the premium to sit at a saloon table if you can.

And if you don't already know this musical, or even if just not as intimately as I do, still get yourself along. As quick as you can. Once you've experienced it, you may want to see it a second time this season. This is incredibly heart filled fun loving immersive entertainment like you just don't get in the big city. If you do know the musical well, you can sing all those well loved show tunes. There is plenty of opportunity and encouragement in the show to clap along. So heck why not sing out loud!

Although the storyline remains intrinsically the same as the 50s movie expect some very clever urban updates on the script and even local references to the theatre. It's a very funny show. And although it's about the gun slinging Wild West, there's not a gun in sight. Belvoir Street Theatre is, after all, as we are told in the show, a gun free zone.

Huge applause to Virginia Gay who brings to the role all the diverse characteristics I could have ever have imaged of the real Calamity: a high-spirited zest for life, a gusto, a verve, a wicked sense of humour, and a uniqueness that few women in history can claim. It's hard to imagine a better performance than that by Virginia Gay, rocking her own incarnation of Martha Jane.

Calamity Jane is performing at Belvoir Street until September 30.

Richard Carroll is directing Meet Me In St Louis for Neglected Musicals at Hayes Theatre which is also performing later this month.

Read more about the real Calamity Jane with excerpts of her autobiography here >>