Musical Review: Calamity Jane

Petticoats, buckskin and romance are in the air at the Grand Opera House

To be honest, I was a hair and one more report of it ‘snowing a blizzard’ up in Belfast away from pulling out of going to see the New Lyric Operatic Company’s production of Calamity Jane at the Grand Opera House. Work ethic won out (for an arts journalist, that’s what passes) and I was glad I did. It’s hard to stay in a mood when there’s petticoats, buckskin and romance flying all over the place.

Calamity Jane is one the musicals – like Chicago and The Sound of Music – that has sort of soaked into the cultural hive-mind. It doesn’t matter where you come on the artistic sliding scale between ‘I only watch the most obscure opera’ and ‘I hate art and all pretty things’ you’ve probably seen the film (starring Doris Day and a regular on the Easter TV schedule at one point) or could hum along with one of the songs if someone else got you started. So you know the bare bones of the story.

The eponymous Calamity is the ultimate tom-boy, cow-girl of the West, bow-legged in buckskins and full of taller than most tall tales about her various exploits as an army scout and stagecoach guard. Unfortunately, she’s so determinedly ‘one of the boys’ – rejecting out of hand her friend Wild Bill Hickok’s suggestion that she’d a ‘passable pretty girl’ if she invested in some ‘feminine fixings’ – that she’s frequently mistaken for a man and nobody takes her seriously as a romantic prospect. Least of all the subject of her yearnings, the ‘gentleman’ Lieutenant Danny Gilmartin, who instead falls head over heels for her pretty, proper show-girl friend Katie Brown.

There’s a happy ending, of course, but the fun is getting there.

Ciara Mackey (The Threepenny Opera, Dancing Lughnasa) is the New Lyric Operatic Company’s Calam and brings just the right blend of rootin’ tootin’ attitude and vulnerability to the role. The character might be brash and prone to being ‘careless with the truth’, but she’s fiercely likeable and Mackey’s charm makes it easy for the audience to root for her.

One of Mackey’s best moments is when Calam’s roaring with laughter at being mistaken for a man by Brown, only to abruptly deflate when she realises that maybe isn’t what she wants. Her whole body-language changes, doubt pulling her in small, and then she pops right back up again with her trademark resilience. It’s a rare moment of open doubt for the usually brash character, but Mackey pins it down with precision.


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She also works well with Karl McGuckin (Blood Brothers, HMS Pinafore), who makes his New Lyric Operatic Society debut as the cool gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok. McGuckian’s voice occasionally overwhelms the source material, giving his character a gravitas that doesn’t quite work, but he’s at his best when bouncing off the other cast members. His scenes with Mackey’s Calam are warm and light-hearted, laying the foundation of both a friendship and a particularly prickly and unacknowledged courtship.

His chest-puffing competition with the upright Gilmartin, played by Ross Chambers (Fiddler on the Roof, The Rocky Horror Show, over Raya Smith’s endearingly good-hearted Katie Brown is also fun to watch. In fact, the cabin scene, from ‘A Woman’s Touch’ to the final faint, is one of the highlights of the musical.

The rest of the cast all perform admirably as well, with Harriet Scott deserving a mention for her drawling luvvy of a turn as the legendary Adelaide Adams and Andie Gray as the unfortunately named Francis (with an I) Fryer fussing and fretting his way through the show.

In good part, of course, that is down to Antoinette McMichael, in her second directorial role for the New Lyric Operatic Company. She manages to keep the bounce and humour of the play without letting it ‘go panto’, particularly in the case of Katie Brown. It’s a role that is easy to over-saccharine, McMichael and Smith give her just enough humour and charm to stop her being a particularly sugar dish-cloth. She’s never going to out-shine Calamity, but Smith holds her own on stage.

There’s probably been slicker and glossier performances of Calamity Jane, but it’s hard to imagine they were any more enthusiastic or whole-hearted. That goes a long way in a production as gleefully, romantically silly as Calamity Jane. The cast were believable in their roles, the staging was fairly simple (although I’ve seen bigger productions with a lot less) but well and solidly done and the few first night mishaps (mostly hats coming unmoored) made the audience chuckle rather than groan.

Although, it has to be said, once the clip-clop rhythm of ‘The Deadwood Stage’ is in your had, you are not shifting that earworm easily.

Calamity Jane is at the Grand Opera House until March 30