Virginia Gay Cracks the Whip as Calamity Jane

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Virginia Gay will play Calamity Jane. Photo: Sam Ruttyn

As revealed in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph, Virginia Gay is to play Calamity Jane for Neglected Musicals in August

Blown away by Virginia Gay’s portrayal of photographer Liz Imbrie in High Society at the Hayes Theatre Co last year, Michelle Guthrie immediately set about looking for a starring vehicle for the popular performer.

Guthrie, who produces Neglected Musicals, settled on the 1961 musical Calamity Jane, which was adapted from the much-loved 1953 Warner Bros movie written for Doris Day.

“Virginia absolutely stole the show in High Society in my opinion, which is why I wanted to find something where it’s OK for her to steal the show. Calamity is barely off stage. It’s perfect for her. She gets all the big songs and a lot of gags – and her comic timing is impeccable,” says Guthrie.

Neglected Musicals will present Calamity Jane in August as part of the Hayes Theatre Co’s season for the second half of 2016.

Best known for her TV roles in Network Seven’s Winners & Losers and All Saints, Gay (who graduated from the WAAPA acting course) is also a gifted musical theatre performer as she showed with consummate performances in High Society and Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town for Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and Squabbalogic at the Sydney Opera House last month.

With season five of Winners & Losers shot and ready to screen later this year, Gay is enjoying taking advantage of the hiatus in her TV schedule to flex her musical theatre muscle on short-run productions like Wonderful Town and now Calamity Jane.

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Virginia Gay and Bobby Fox in High Society. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Gay says she watched the film of Calamity Jane “obsessively” as a child. “I had a series of films I watched over and over again, which was kind of like a cheap babysitting for my parents because they would put it on and I wouldn’t move – and Calamity Jane was one of them,” she says.

The whip-cracking, gun-toting, buckskin-clad character is inspired by a real American frontierswoman called Martha Jane Canary, nicknamed Calamity Jane.

Set in Deadwood City, where Calamity can outride and outshoot everyone except Wild Bill Hickok, the show tells a fictional story involving comic confusion, jealousy and love. The terrific score includes famous songs such Windy City, Secret Love, The Black Hills of Dakota and The Deadwood Stage (Whip-Crack-Away!).

“I used to love it growing up because she’s an independent woman. She’s iconoclastic and transgressive and powerful and funny,” says Gay.

“I like the fact that (wearing men’s clothes) is her way of surviving on the frontier in the Wild West. What an amazing choice. I really love her. It no doubt started a lifelong love of funny outsiders; they are my favourite role in any show.”

Neglected Musicals presents minimally staged readings of rarely seen shows – Calamity Jane has only ever had amateur productions in Australia – performed by a top cast with script in hand after just a day or two’s rehearsal.

“After 10 years of television, I love working quick. One day (to rehearse) is psychotic but that’s great,” says Gay.

“I think the audience feels like they are in on something special. You never normally get to see something like this. It’s like being in the rehearsal room. It’s so intimate and so full of glorious mistakes. It’s like we are all in this together and it’s delightful.”

Calamity Jane plays at the Hayes Theatre Co, August 3 – 6. Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au or 8065 7337

 A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on June 5

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