It doesn’t matter what stage it is. Louise Mandrell owns it.
With her decades of country-music experience behind her, the singer has a knack for making a moment in the spotlight seem the most important thing in the world to her. It’s all about charisma. She’s up there on stage rooting for the audience to have a good time — and you, in turn, root for her to put on a great show.
It’s long been a dream for Mandrell to try her hand at musical theater, and she gets her chance with a rollicking, boisterous and warm-hearted career debut in the Good Company Players production of “Calamity Jane” at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater. Mandrell is no theater veteran, and there were several reminders of that fact (some mumbled lyrics, a few moments of hesitation, a missed cue) during the opening night performance. But even her missteps were endearing. Supported by a strong cast and drawing upon Laurie Pessano’s strong direction, Mandrell’s enthusiasm is infectious.
The stage version of “Calamity Jane” is based on the 1953 film starring Doris Day, and it’s definitely a trifle in terms of the musical-theater canon. Mandrell’s title character is the archetype of the Old West tomboy frontierswoman: a gal who goes against the grain, whether it’s turning up her nose at dresses or her skill with a gun. Frilly feminine comforts — or even regular bathing — for Calamity? Not a chance.
Charles K. Freeman’s book, adapted from James O’Hanlon’s screenplay, introduces us to the rough-and-rumble Dakota territory town of Deadwood. (David Pierce’s set gives us a nice sense of place.) Here Calamity hangs out with a group of men that includes the famous Wild Bill Hickok (a smooth and assured Brian Pucheu, giving another of his accomplished performances) and a spiffy Army lieutenant named Danny Gilmartin (Teddy Maldonado), upon whom Calamity has a very big crush.
Sammy Fain’s music and Paul Francis Webster’s lyrics haven’t exactly gone down in history as a classic score, but there are a few tuneful keepers in the bunch. A highlight is Mandrell’s rendition of “My Secret Love,” the only song in the show where she gets to go full throttle with that well-known voice.
I went in expecting pretty much an old-chestnut of a show, and what surprised me is how lively and funny it is. (Especially the first act, though by the time the inevitable love triangle and related romantic shenanigans rear up in the second, the plot machinations get a little creaky.) When the proprietor of the local hotel and saloon, Henry Miller (Dan Pessano), promises his customers that an alluring entertainer named Francis Fryer will soon arrive for an exclusive engagement, things don’t got as planned. Calamity, in an effort to calm the crowd, says she’ll travel to Chicago to procure the services of a well-known actress named Adelaid Adams. The resulting mix-up provides all sorts of comic fodder.
With her cannon of a laugh, Mandrell is in the thick of things when it comes to the comedy, and there were many moments on opening night when her timing was razor-sharp. (I particularly liked her wide-eyed, wild-hair entrance in the second act.) This is a hugely physical show for her, and the simple act of coming out in frontierswoman garb in the first scene helps establish her character. (Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed’s costumes are impeccable.)
Later, when the dancing starts, Mandrell gets literally head-over-heels into the experience. With the fringe on her hat flying, she gets carried on shoulders, tossed up on a piano and swung around with abandon in the highlight song “Just Blew in from the Windy City.” Choreographer Julie Lucido gives her an inspired, jaunty workout.
The supporting cast backs Mandrell up with some strong performances, from a terrific Emily Pessano as Katie Brown, the maid who gets a shot at show business, to Tami Cowger as the glamorous Adelaid. Steve Souza, Lance Casper and Rich Burt shine in smaller roles in the rousing men’s chorus.
Less successful is Jacob Carrillo, a usually reliable Good Company comic presence, who struggles with the weakly written character of Francis. I wasn’t impressed with Lucido’s choreography for the Francis character in the number “A Hive Full of Honey.” Dorie Sanders, as Susan Miller, has some nice moments as the hotel owner’s niece, but she, too, struggles to find the comic sharpness in her scenes with Carrillo — the show’s most strained storyline.
My other criticism of the show on opening night was the sound, which in early scenes left us with subdued vocals from Mandrell compared to the chorus.
But these minor quibbles aside, what really matters is Calamity.
This production of “Calamity Jane” is first and foremost a star vehicle, which makes for a very different kind of Good Company Players experience. (Throughout its nearly 40-year history, the company has maintained an egalitarian, “no star” mindset, so bringing in a big name such as Mandrell — under special circumstances — for this run is a big departure.)
Do folks come to a “Calamity Jane” starring Louise Mandrell hoping to see a well-known performer so submerged into a character that you forget who’s playing her? Most people don’t. They want to see “Louise” on stage, or at least enough of her up there to make an event of it.
And it’s in this capacity that Mandrell delivers with consummate style.
On opening night Mandrell missed an important cue at the end of the show, which left for a befuddled ending. But it didn’t matter. Her charisma and stage presence washed over any imperfections.
It also helped that Mandrell fessed up to her missed cue after the curtain call in absolutely charming fashion. She used the opportunity to bond even more deeply with the audience, and in doing so, generated even more goodwill. Those instincts can only be honed from years of experience. I have no doubt that as the run progresses, she’ll further refine and grow into her performance.
For the next couple of months, then, it’s a chance to experience both a goofy frontierswoman and an amiable celebrity. There’s an amazing moment of transformation in the second act when Calamity, by now on her way to becoming a “lady,” sheds her frontier duds for a girlie blue gingham dress. As she’s pulling the dress over her bright red long johns — which gets a big laugh — and removes her cap to let down her hair, it’s as if, boom, it’s Louise Mandrell!
We’re lucky to have her.