Oh, how I wish this could be a glowing review of the dramedy Calendar Girls, playing weekends through May 20 at Stage West Community Playhouse.
The show about longtime friends semi-baring their bosoms to make a calendar to raise money to buy a sofa for a local cancer ward is based on a true story. The script is sweet and heartwarming. It’s been a hit around the world and made into a successful movie.
The Stage West production has many of the area’s best actors, including Lynda Dilts-Benson as the attention-starved Chris; Emily Nettnin as her best friend Annie, who is mourning the loss of her husband John, played with conviction by Mark Burdette; Kathy Capelle as the shy, insecure Ruth; Paige Cetnor(CQ) as the sexy, rebellious, but rather materialistic Celia; and Betsy Glasson as the sprightly retired teacher Jessie.
But the devil is in the details, and many of those need tweaking to make this show really shine.
The play opens with members of the local chapter of England’s Women’s Institute, an educational and home demonstration-type organization, listening to a lecture about broccoli by the frumpy Brenda, played a little over-the-top by Cheryl Roberts. They soon learn that Annie’s good-natured, sunflower-loving husband John is dying from leukemia and gather around to comfort her. The subject segues to the horrible settee in the waiting room at his hospital, and the women decide to raise money to replace it as a tribute to John. The problem is that the money they’ve raised with the calendar they put out every year is minuscule, mainly because of its bland subject matter.
They notice that sexy girlie calendars sell well, and that’s when they decide to put out an "alt" calendar with themselves as subjects, never mind that their bodies have decades of wear and tear, to say nothing of extra poundage.
Even so, the calendar becomes an international sensation, but that success tests their friendships and makes them question their life choices.
Like The Full Monty and the movie Apollo 13, most of us already know the capper of the Calendar Girls, so this could easily become a one-trick pony. As the other two did with great success, Girls expands to tell the stories behind the story.
This takes deft staging and acting, since playwrights Juliette Towhidi’s and Tim Firth’s script gives us those stories in intertwined bits and pieces. This also means there can’t be any distractions; it takes concentration to keep seven life stories straight.
One easy fix would be to add some appropriate music during what feels like long blackouts, similar to what was done in last month’s I’ll Be Back Before Midnight. That way, the mood continues and the blackouts seem shorter.
Also, the backlit screen showing a field is lovely, but problems with executing its display draw attention away from the points of those scenes.
More glaring are some of costume designer Eileen Bernard’s choices, particularly with Emily Nettnin’s Annie, who is dressed in unflattering tissue-thin, tight tank tops and clompy backless heels. Since Annie’s is one of the two major roles, dressing her more like the others would help the audience concentrate on her story instead of her outfits.
Lastly, director Sandy Penwarden needs to have her players pick up the pace, as some scenes seem to drag.
Of note are Ellen Hutt as Marie, the oh-so-proper local W.I. chairman, played not too sharp, not too bland; Gary Depp as Rod, Chris’s perhaps too understanding husband and flower shop partner; and Cindy Smith as Cora, the vicar’s "wayward" daughter who feels just fine about her own life choice and isn’t afraid to say so.
Rounding out the cast are Pamela Baur as an above-it-all Lady Cravenshire, the crafts show judge who exemplifies England’s lingering class system; Anthony Agnelli as Lawrence, the hospital orderly who handles photographing the bare naked ladies with delicacy and discretion; and Andrew Hackworth as Liam, a detergent salesman who just wants to do his job, even when it seems crass.
Calendar Girls is a celebration of life, particularly the last years of it, with all its physical imperfections and personal challenges. Even though it centers around nudity, there’s not a prurient moment. In fact, the scene where the women are photographed au naturale is, arguably, the most innocent and sweetest in the show. Even so, the subject matter would probably appeal most to grown-ups, rather than children.