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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND : THEATER / NOTES : 'Calamity and Wild Bill' Retold as a Musical Romance : Local playwright Katherine Ann Jones has relied on several contributors for an entertaining repertory of songs.

November 02, 1995|TODD EVERETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The more you know about the history of "Calamity and Wild Bill," the more of a delightful surprise the production at the Ojai Center for the Arts turns out to be.

Written more than a decade ago by local playwright Katherine Ann Jones, the play has been produced in New York and, last year, Santa Paula. That production was so experimental--with lots of back-projected film and one actor playing several of the male roles--that the author asked that she not be associated with it. (I rather enjoyed the show, self-consciously arty as it may have been.)

Jones has rewritten and reframed her drama as a musical, and--allowing for a relatively low budget, a rotating and somewhat uneven cast and insufficient rehearsal--it's terrific. The show owes a lot to Irving Berlin's "Annie Get Your Gun" and is none the worse for the debt.

Michele Skankey stars as Martha Jane Cannary, better known as Calamity Jane. As Jones has it, Jane and Wild Bill Hickock's romance resulted in a daughter, whom Jane gave up for adoption to wealthy Capt. Jim O'Neil (Ron Rowe). After O'Neil dies, young Janey (Heidi Goodspeed) reads her mother's diary; the story is told in flashback.

The songs were written by a variety of hands, with the program giving no idea of who is responsible for what. Allan Jay Friedman seems to be the chief composer, with lyrics by Rand Bishop, Larry Gatlin (yes, the country singer), Amanda McBroom, James R. Nation and playwright Jones, and additional music by Jeff Silbar. With all those contributors, the music is surprisingly coherent and often of a quality deserving to be heard outside the play's context.

Skankey is a spunky Calamity Jane, with a speaking voice apparently inspired by Yosemite Sam--fortunately, she lightens up when singing. Geoff Koch is a handsome Hickock, with a strong singing voice (one of the play's jokes is that Jane has the blue vocabulary of a dockworker, while the strongest Bill gets is "Gol' darn!").

The supporting performances are of varying quality: Most of the cast members are primarily either singers or actors, here required to do both. Though Goodspeed was a standout as Janey, she'll be replaced by Juliandra Cox from Nov. 10 until the show closes.

* "Calamity and Wild Bill" plays at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 26 at Ojai Center for the Arts, 113 S. Montgomery St., Ojai. Tickets are $12; $10 for students and seniors. For reservations or more information, call 646-0117.

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Of Mice and Men: The Santa Paula Theater Center's final official production of the year, John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men," is a marvel of casting, with Taylor Kasch as shrewd, quick-tempered George and Frederick R. Helsel as his unlikely friend, the massive, developmentally disabled Lennie, heading a cast so strong that one of Ventura County's most respected actors, Ronald Rezak, appears in what's essentially a cameo.

Special commendation to Christopher Cotone as the bullying, jealous Curley and Sarah P. Meaney as Curley's teasing wife; to Victor Williams as one of the farmhands; to Jeff G. Rack for another artful set, and to director Gerald Castillo for bringing the elements together so effectively. The production moves to the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center come January.

* "Of Mice and Men" plays at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and at 2:30 Sundays through Dec. 3 at Santa Paula Theater Center, 125 S. 7th St., Santa Paula. Tickets are $12.50; $10 for students and seniors. For reservations or more information, call 525-4645.

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Casting Call: Director David Douglas will hold auditions next week for the Ojai Center for the Arts' production of "Charley's Aunt." All parts are open. Auditions will be at the center, 113 S. Montgomery St., from 7 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday. The play will run weekends from Jan. 12 through Feb. 3. For further information, call 646-0117.

The Conejo Players will hold auditions for their production of "Other People's Money" Nov. 12-14 at Players' Theater, 351 S. Moorpark Road, Thousand Oaks. Actors should be familiar with the script. The show will play Thursday through Saturday evenings from Jan. 19 to Feb. 24. For more information, call Scott at 597-0428.

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