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Review: Calamity Jane at the Sunderland Empire, until Saturday

Jodie Prenger and Tom Lister are far from calamitous as the stars of Wild West musical Calamity Jane

Tom Lister and Jodie Prenger in Calamity Jane
Tom Lister and Jodie Prenger in Calamity Jane

This touring production has been on the road since last summer with largely the same cast, so it’s no surprise that Tuesday’s opener was slick and professional.

But the real joy was that it was performed with freedom and great humour, to the obvious enjoyment of the cast, led by Jodie Prenger (winner of BBC’s I’d Do Anything back in 2008 and enjoying a stellar career since) as Calamity and Tom Lister as Wild Bill Hickok.

The acting cast was also a musical band of great versatility. There were banjos, fiddles, double bass, bar room piano and much besides. All this added to the on-stage atmosphere and the ease with which the storyline could move from spoken word to song.

For those who don’t know the story of Martha Jane Cannary, I shan’t spoil it for you, but she (and Hickok) were real 19th Century Wild West characters.

The film of Calamity Jane was released in 1953 and the first stage production in the 1960s. This well-known story has been doing the rounds since.

With fine dance routines coupled with Fain and Webster’s great songs such as Deadwood Stage, The Black Hills of Dakota, Windy City and Secret Love, musical theatre fans are in seventh heaven here.

The plot revolves around being Careless with the Truth, as the song goes. This number makes its appearance more than once to support the plot.

With so much activity, there was the potential for sound overload. But the quality and balance were impeccable, with the singers, especially Prenger’s raspy Ethel Murman ‘I’ve got it so you’re going to hear it’ style, all delivering full measure.

Jodie Prenger in Calamity Jane
Jodie Prenger in Calamity Jane

Lister, with his easy charm and natural deep theatre voice, was the perfect vocal foil, and much in the thoughts of many of the ladies in the audience, judging by their reaction to his every move.

Paul Kissaun (The Flying Pickets) could almost have been Gabby Johnson from Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, and Rob Delaney was a fine on-stage musical director and performer. Even Giovanna Ryan, a late replacement for the indisposed Sioned Saunders, fitted in perfectly, with fine vocal and piano skills.

There were no scene changes, just great utilization of the available space and multi-functioning props. This is where I found out how to turn a piano into a stagecoach in five seconds flat – most ingenious.

A night of full-on entertainment, and a pleasure to see the cast going the extra mile by being out in the foyer immediately after the final curtain for chat, selfies and a charity collection.

You can also catch the show at Darlington Civic Theatre from May 12-16.

Rob Barnes


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