Doris Day’s 1953 movie about the gun-totin’ tomboy from Deadwood Dakota remains a perennial favourite with musical lovers, and rightly so. The combination of Day’s punchy performance and Howard Keel’s largely underplayed (but never under-sung!) Bill Hickock is close to perfection, and there is a large supporting cast of Wild West characters to support the (typically) light story.
So it’s great to be able to report back on an exuberant and quite daring production by Stafford Operatic at The Gatehouse this week. Eschewing traditional scenery with vistas and rooms for an open stage with a large built stage towards the back, this was a production that really relied on using every member of the company to create the atmosphere for the story. And this was achieved with real relish by the large company, from a pre-show setting the scene for The Golden Garter, through several moments where company members mimed actions to songs on the stage-within-a-stage – as the story is so much about theatre and the act of acting this was a very well devised device that didn’t outdo the action in front – through to the beautifully simple staging of The Black Hills of Dakota that allowed the audience to really settle back and enjoy the fantastic choral singing of the company.
I noticed, looking through the programme before the start, that every member of the company had been given a character and name, from Potato Creek Johnny (a prospector) through Tricksie (a “painted lady”) to the delightfully named Madame Mustache (a lady poker player). This must have helped the ensemble to develop the sense of character needed to bring this production to life. Full credit must go to director Nicholas Maxwell-Earnshaw for developing this ensemble and really allowing them to create such vivid characterizations.
There is a problem, however, for any company tackling this evergreen story in the stage adaptation; it is far too long and, in long passages of act 1, actually quite boring. My 7 year old co-reviewer, who is a big fan of the film, was very restless during act 1. The film comes in at 1 hr 40 minutes long. Act 1 of the stage version is nearly 1 hour 30 minutes, and most of the song additions to the score are not a patch on the original film soundtrack (Careless with the Truth, Adelaide, Men). And this is a big problem I’ve felt each time I’ve see the show. These three songs all come in the first, exceptionally long scene of the stage play. I’ve always hoped a production would be brave enough to take a big red pen to this opening scene – it really would help the production overall. No matter how committed the performances are, it is still long.
In her first leading role Emily-Jayne Nicholls acts Calamity with conviction and humour, and possesses a very clear pretty singing voice. Although the voice does not totally convince for the whole of Act 1, where a more rugged belting tone is required to put across Calam’s big numbers, she fared much better with the big ballad Secret Love in Act 2.
Likewise her partner, Will Wood, acted Bill Hickock with charm, but lacked the muscular sound to completely convince as the dangerous gun slinger. Even when accompanying himself very effectively on guitar for Higher than a Hawk, the feel of the song was very different from the rest of the score, and, as nice a performance as it was, it felt out of place compared to the rest of the show.
Good support came from Vicky Webb and Tom Gosling as a convincing Katie Brown and Danny Gilmartin, and especially Dan Tillsley as a quite angry but very funny Francis (with an “I”) Fryer. Special mention must be given, from the company, to the brilliantly gurning Dave Stacey as Rattlesnake the Stage Coach driver.
Well done to Musical Director Laura Foxcroft and Choreographer Hannah Morris. The musical numbers were performed with confidence and real character. I’ve rarely seen an amateur performance use the ensemble so well to create the atmosphere, and allow the whole show to flow so smoothly. Overall a very enjoyable, and thoroughly committed performance.
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