Review: In GCP’s ‘Calamity Jane,’ Louise Mandrell is the reason for the season
The song “Secret Love” is so simple, aching and gorgeous that it almost feels out of place in the mostly forgettable score of the Wild West musical “Calamity Jane.” This beautiful tune by Sammy Fain is like a piece of fine Waterford china banished to a cabinet full of plates from Target.
Here’s my favorite part, sung by Calamity, a real-life 19th century frontierswoman and scout who fell in love with notorious gunslinger “Wild Bill Hickok”:
Now I shout it from the highest hills
Even told the golden daffodils
At last my heart’s an open door
And my secret love’s no secret anymore
Her voice swells, filling Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater with her rich, lustrous, trademark sound. But it’s more than just volume. There is intensity in that raised voice, a sturdy texture of grit and experience, that comes from being a show-biz veteran. The Nashville-based Mandrell has logged thousands of hours in front of audiences as a country music star. She is used to commanding a stage.
I could listen again and again.
I felt that way seven years ago when I last saw Mandrell perform this role and sing this song with Good Company Players. It’s the point in the show when she is closest to her comfort zone as a seasoned performer. And I felt it again in this agreeable revival of the production, which features some returning cast members and much of the same production team.
Overall, the show is a cozy and endearing star vehicle for Mandrell, whose vivaciousness and enthusiasm for the role has not diminished one bit in seven years.
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With that said, we’re talking about a theatrical performance, not a concert. Does Mandrell disappear into the role of Calamity with the consummate skill of a seasoned musical-theater veteran?
At the opening weekend performance I saw, Mandrell still felt tentative at times acting in the role. Belting out “Secret Love” with her signature, husky-voiced confidence is one thing, but it can be scary playing someone else when you’ve perfected your own onstage persona. It makes it tougher that she’s playing a character years younger than herself, a challenge for any actor.
Still, I’m sure that the hard-working Mandrell is more comfortable and confident in the role as the run continues. She’s that kind of entertainer.
It helps that she has a supportive cast and strong direction from Laurie Pessano, who also guided Mandrell through what was essentially a “bucket list” project for the country star seven years ago. Pessano knows she isn’t dealing with the best or most memorable musical here. So she emphasizes the gentle farce and doesn’t try to make it into something more significant.
Among the standouts are two more Pessanos: Emily, who plays Katie Brown, an aspiring singer who comes to the rough-and-tumble frontier town of Deadwood, in the Dakota Territory, under false pretenses; and Dan, who plays Henry Miller, the proprietor of the town saloon. Both reprise their roles from the 2012 production with aplomb. Emily anchors the production with her wit and presence, while Dan gets to fret — a most enjoyable comedic experience for the audience.
Shawn Williams offers a noble and compelling turn as Lt. Daniel Gilmartin, and Teddy Maldonado gets to goof it up as Frances Fryer, a traveling entertainer whose gig at the saloon does not turn out as expected.
And where does Calamity fit into all this? In the anything-goes social strictures of the frontier, she’s found a place where her embrace of hyper-masculine pursuits — shooting, riding, scouting wearing pants — is cheerfully tolerated. Yet Calamity has a more feminine side, expressed both in a crush on Lt. Gilmartin and her annoyance at all the tomboy jokes, that drives much of the play’s action. (A scene and song in which Calamity and Katie add a woman’s touch to a dreary cabin is one of the show’s highlights.) Such gender roles might feel creaky, sure, but there is also a nascent sense here of breaking norms and finding a middle ground in terms of what society expects.
The play’s storyline is mildly amusing in a corn-fed, exaggerated, slap-your-thigh-at-a-hoedown kind of way. Frankly, the humor can feel as musty as a farmhouse attic that hasn’t been cleaned out in a decade or two. Is there a steamy romantic chemistry between Calamity and Bill? It’s hard to find. But it’s not that kind of show. Mandrell and her fellow cast members seem to be having fun, ranging from the leads (she has a built-in sparring partner with Bill Hickok, played by Ted Nunes, who has some nice vocal moments), to the ensemble (Joseph Ham and Chris Hanson play a bunch of smaller roles, and in each of them, they bring a standout comic sparkle to the stage.)
Earlier I mentioned that I expect Mandrell has overcome any opening-weekend jitters and become a little more relaxed in the role of Calamity. But I also hope that she is able to carve out a few more nudge-and-wink moments where she gets to be herself, too. Laurie Pessano gives her a chance to play a couple of her instruments (the banjo and harmonica), and in these intervals, she shines.
In the end, that’s really the whole point of a star vehicle like this. You don’t want Calamity Jane up there on stage; you want Mandrell playing Calamity Jane. When she sings “Secret Love,” I thought to myself: Wow, that’s Louise Mandrell, and, man, she can sing! When you have a star, you let her shine. And that’s a great thing to experience.