As soon as I saw this touring show was coming to Milton Keynes, I knew I had to book straight away. Not only does it star one of our favourite performers, Jodie Prenger, but Mrs Chrisparkle was raised on a diet of Doris Day movies, with Calamity Jane being her favourite childhood memory. We only have to go out in a gentle breeze for her to suddenly burst forward with a chorus of “the windy city is mighty pretty….”, or to walk up a small hill for her sing “oh the Deadwood stage is headin’ on over the hills…” – I’m sure you get the picture. The young Miss Duncansby (as she was then) was never happier than when riding shotgun through those rough areas of New South Wales where she brought up, knocking back the sarsaparillas, dressed as a squaw.
Fortunately times change, but her fondness for that old film and its songs is unshakeable. Consequently, it’s fairly amazing to think that, in all these intervening years, she’s never got me sat down to watch the film on TV, so I didn’t know what to expect from the story. If you don’t know the plot either, here’s a brief outline. Calamity Jane (Calam to her friends) is the tomboyest tomboy this side of the Black Hills of Dakota, and rides the stagecoach, shooting to warn off (I hope not to kill) those pesky Injuns with their arrows. She’s pals with Wild Bill Hickok, but has a yearning for Lt Danny Gilmartin that isn’t reciprocated. One day Calam has to ride into Chicago to bring back a famous actress that the men of Deadwood fancy something rotten, to appear at the Golden Garter saloon. None of them has ever seen her, they only know her from her image in much lusted after cigarette cards. Thus Calam mistakenly brings back the wrong girl – a wannabe singer/actress – who gets found out, and it could have ended very nastily were it not for the fact that the wrong girl is a very sweet girl by the name of Katie Brown, who beguiles all the men, becomes best mates with Calam and indeed they end up sharing the same chalet. How does this menage à quatre sort itself out? That’s the show.
I’ve rarely been in a theatre where the atmosphere of expectation and excitement was as tangible as it was in Milton Keynes on Tuesday night. The show opens with the curtain down, a banjo hanging from a hook in full view of the audience; on saunters Jamie Noar (I think) as Hank, takes down the banjo and gently starts to strum – and half the audience started humming along with him! I felt as though I was in another world. When the curtain eventually opens up it reveals the Golden Garter saloon, and it’s as Wild Westy as you could imagine. A shoddy little stage at the back, a plinky plonky piano up front, bare wooden chairs and balconies, and everyone dressed like they’re in a John Wayne movie. It’s a very convincing staging – the only criticism I would have is that there’s not a huge amount of space left for dancing, but the cast cope with that problem admirably.
This is a Watermill Theatre production, so you know what that means, don’t you? No separate orchestra or band, instead the cast members play the instruments themselves on the stage, integrating the acting and the music to perfection. The first time I saw this trick (in Chess) it didn’t really work that well for me – it made the stage very messy and created blocking problems. Since then I’ve seen it done a few times and they’re getting better and better at it. Indeed I recognised a few members of the cast from the similarly staged production of Fiddler on the Roof earlier this year – I guess if you have the skill of being both an actor and an instrumental soloist, you’re in luck where it comes to this kind of production. Suffice to say the musical performances were all terrific.
I must say that technically also this was a faultless performance by the cast. With all those instruments, loads of prop handling (guns, lassos, glasses, bottles), lots of choreography, special effects, costume changes and so on, they didn’t put a foot wrong. It must be rehearsed to within an inch of its life, yet it all still looks really natural. So, it was incredibly disappointing that the sound amplification in some of the big numbers let it down. To be honest, at times it sounded absolutely awful, especially before the interval. If it were an old hifi system, you’d say that the treble was turned up too much, creating a strange distortion. The instruments themselves sounded fine – but the voices could have been singing in a foreign language, it was that hard to make out the words. Sadly, this was most problematic for Ms Prenger, who’s got a belter of a voice and could have filled that auditorium without the need for a microphone.
During the interval I walked Mrs C over to the Merchandise stall and offered her a Calamity Jane mug, which she refused, a Calamity Jane hoodie, at which she looked daggers at me, and a Calamity Jane soundtrack CD which she said she would never play. Sigh; you just can’t help some people. Still she’s going to be most amused to find a Calamity Jane Stetson under the tree on Christmas morning.
I don’t know if they tweaked some knobs during the interval but the voices were much clearer in the second half which was a huge relief. The amplification issue notwithstanding, nothing could detract from the standard of the performances, which were terrific and made the whole evening enormous fun from start to finish. Jodie Prenger has a wonderful stage presence and is the focal point for the whole show with her bubbly personality. She makes the most of all the comedy in the role, but is also very moving when it comes to the character’s inability to girl-up. Tomboy she may be, but inside she’s all woman. For me the highlight of the entire show was her incredible performance of Secret Love which gave me goosebumps – emotional, beautiful; it really soared.
Tom Lister as Wild Bill Hickok also gives a tremendous performance, mixing humour and pathos, and revealing a superb voice, particularly in Higher Than a Hawk, which had the audience so spellbound you could hear the proverbial pin drop. With Alex Hammond as Danny, the two leading men give a very entertaining “rivals in love” performance, and together with Phoebe Street’s charming performance as Katie, they’re quite a show-stopping foursome. The man sat behind me was really enjoying the show, getting totally carried away with the story. When Danny finally planted a smacker on Katie’s lips, he let out an involuntary “Go on, my son!” much to everyone’s amusement.
Finishing with an ending of almost Shakespearean comedy marriage dimensions, there are also very enjoyable musical and comic performances from Rob Delaney as Francis Fryer and Sioned Saunders as Susan. The rest of the cast all turn in excellent performances, and I was particularly impressed with Anthony Dunn’s hearty Henry Miller, Jon Bonner’s amusingly squeaky Doc, Paul Kissaun’s laid-back Rattlesnake and Christina Tedders’ bitchy Adelaid. Plus, as dance captain, Martin McCarthy as Joe is obviously keeping everyone on their toes with some really well executed dances, most obvious in the delightful curtain call which turns into a wonderful reprise-led hoe-down.
It’s a really entertaining show that we both enjoyed tremendously. For me it was fascinating to see how all these well-known songs fit in to a story that I didn’t previously know; and the natural fun that comes from the story and the performances just seeps into your soul to send you home with a real feel-good feeling. The audience adored it – and I guarantee you’ll be humming The Black Hills of Dakota for days. There’s a long tour ahead, so you’ve plenty of opportunities to catch the show – it’s travelling all over England and Scotland between now and next July.
P. S. This was the first time I’ve ever seen a musical where the programme didn’t list the musical numbers. What’s all that about then? Makes reminiscing about it much harder, and you don’t know whereabouts you are in the show as it progresses. Minus mark for the programme writer! However, to make up for it, their marketing department did create this brilliant little trailer which should get your toes tappin’ in anticipatory glee!