REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
Calendar Girls, a 2009 play based on a hit 2003 film, is Tim Firth and Juliette Towhidi’s true-to-life comedy about six middle-aged women from a village in Yorkshire, England who raise money by posing nude for a calendar, in the process becoming a worldwide sensation. The women’s goal was to honor one of their members’ husbands, who had died from leukemia, by raising money to purchase a settee to be dedicated to his memory. The 2003 motion picture starred Helen Mirren and became a major success, grossing nearly $100 million and garnering Golden Globe nominations for Mirren and co-star Julie Walters. The play is being presented at the Santa Paula Theater Center through December 18.
Although the film received raves for its warmth and good-humored comedy, the play suffers from elements that normally plague stage productions that are drawn from films; as a result, it received mixed reviews from critics. The SPTC production delivers, led by a superbly-cast sextet, however, too much of what made the film a success is absent from the stage version, and the result has become diluted and inert of much of the rich atmosphere that made it a hit.
Chief and foremost of what is missing is the distinctly British flavor of the film, which was enhanced by the bucolic setting of Yorkshire County in Northern England and a sumptuous musical score. The humor of the premise is in seeing how the modest, prim British ladies find ways to pose for their bawdy calendar while retaining the flavor of the mundane duties they assume as members of the the local branch of the Women’s Institute, a community-based organization whose activities usually focus on domesticities like cooking and homemaking.
In the play, the British nature of the story has all but been bleached away. Nothing on the set, save an austere portrait of Queen Victoria hanging on the wall, suggests that the setting is English. Most damaging of all was the ill-conceived decision not to have the performers speak in British dialect, resulting in such distinctly British words and phrases as “bloke,” “bloody well,” and even “bollocks” (the latter an epithet that is never used in the U.S.), being spoken in American accents, which comes off as culturally incompatible and out-of-character. In her spoken disclaimer to the audience before the show, producer Leslie Nichols explained that to use proper Yorkshire dialect might have been incomprehensible to audiences, but even a standard British accent would have been preferable to none at all, and as a result, much of the gentle charm and dry wit of the film are gone.
In the story, the climax comes at the end of the first act, when the ladies’ plans are finally realized and the uproarious photo shoot for the calendar takes place. Nichols does a fine job directing this part of the play, as the embarrassed photographer, well played by Andrew Garrett, does his best to stay professional while strategically posing the ladies behind baked goods, oversized teapots, and other objects associated with the mundane niceties of their work with the WI. But in Act II, the story becomes predictable and somewhat of a letdown, as the calendar makes them famous and the ladies are forced to deal with their reluctant, new-found fame, facing a leering media looking for debauchery and spectacle instead of recognizing the honorable intentions that resulted in them deciding to pose for the calendar in the first place. The play can be compared to the far superior comedy The Full Monty, in which the climax of the final strip tease comes at the end of the show, but when the ladies finally complete their photo shoot and the calendar comes out, there is no place for the story to go but downhill and there is still an entire half remaining to be performed.
The ladies, led by Helene Benjamin as Chris, do a great job defining each of their distinctive characters and have wonderful chemistry as an ensemble cast: Karla Holland as Annie, Angela DeCicco as Cora; Rosalee Calvillo as Jessie, Laura Ring as Celia, and Nancy Hullihan as Ruth. Marilyn Lazik is appropriately stuffy as the WI’s prudish chairwoman Marie, while Ray Mastrovito (as Chris’s florist husband Rod) and Allan Noel (as Annie’s dying husband John) are effective set dressing but little more. The ladies are the stars of this show.
The final scene, in which the ladies return to the WI and resume their practice of performing tai chi on a hillside where they had planted a field of sunflowers in honor of the departed John, is charmingly staged and results in a satisfying conclusion.
The fun of Calendar Girls has to do with the notion of what defines British humor in the first place, time-worn concepts that include deadpan understatement, repressed attitudes about societal taboos, sexual innuendo, and social absurdity. Without these things, even a great cast such as this will have a hard time saving a play that had a lot of problems going into it.
One wonderful touch – an actual calendar identical to the one used in the play, with photographs of the actresses in character, utilizing the same poses as seen in the story, was produced as a souvenir and sold to audience members. Calendar Girls is affectionately directed by Judy Blake with wonderful costumes designed for the calendar girls by Barbara Pedziwiatr. The set design is by Mike Carnahan.
Calendar Girls plays through Sunday, December 18 at the Santa Paula Theater Center. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.