- OnStage Los Angeles Critic
North Hollywood CA- Which do you think would sell more copies: a calendar of local churches, or a calendar of women in their birthday suits? Based on the 2003 movie of the same name, which is based on a true story, Calendar Girls follows a group of middle-aged women in Yorkshire, England who pose tastefully nude to raise money for leukemia research. The stage adaptation, which opened on the West End in 2009, is written by Tim Firth and is currently being presented in Los Angeles by The Group Rep.
When the beloved husband of Annie (Lauren Peterson) passes away from leukemia, her friends at the Women’s Institutes are desperate to do something to pay tribute. Led by the charismatic Chris (Michele Bernath), they come up with the idea for an annual calendar that is quite the departure from the Institutes’ usual photos of local scenery—a calendar of the women themselves, tastefully nude, featuring them performing typical “women’s activities” such as knitting, baking, and serving tea. The idea comes about because Annie knows her late husband, John (Doug Haverty) would have gotten quite a kick out of it. While they begin with a modest goal of buying a new couch for the visitors’ lounge at the hospital where John received treatment, before they know it, the “calendar girls” are at the center of a media frenzy, inspiring women and those affected by leukemia worldwide. Naturally, some friendships and insecurities are tested as a result.
While I admit I have never seen the movie, parts of this adaptation felt a bit superfluous, particularly in the first act. The idea for the calendar comes out of left field midway through after a lot of build-up that could be easily condensed, and the play doesn’t truly come to life until the pivotal photo shoot, which comprises a lengthy and extremely fun scene that ends the first act. Some subplots, such as Chris and her husband, Rod’s (Chris Winfield) struggling flower shop or the women’s ongoing rivalry with the old-fashioned chairwoman of their WI division, Marie (Belinda Howell), never make it past half-baked, and while some character arcs play out perfectly, others feel lacking.
Most notable about this production is how wonderful it is to see an ensemble of primarily women playing vivid, strong female characters. In addition to Chris and Annie, the other “calendar girls” are Cora (LizAnne Keigley), a musician and single mother, Jessie (Cheryl Crosland Butler), a retired teacher, Celia (Vesna Tolomanoska), a frustrated major’s wife, and Ruth (Julie Davis), a somewhat reserved housewife who is the last to agree to pose for the calendar. Of the supporting characters, Ruth has the best arc, truly coming into her own in a very satisfying way over the course of the story. While all of the women gave memorable performances, Peterson was the standout as Annie—she has the most emotional material and truly brought a real poignancy to her character’s grief. The best developed arc was the close friendship between Chris and Annie, which becomes strained when Annie begins to suspect Chris is enjoying her fifteen minutes of fame a little too much and has lost sight of the calendar’s original intentions. This play is at its best when it is focused on friendship, although I do wish the setting were different as much of the accent work throughout was inconsistent.
Larry Eisenberg’s direction featured a few beautifully done moments, including the way John’s death is handled in act one, which actually brought tears to my eyes. A scene where letters from fans of the calendar literally and unexpectedly fall from the sky as well as the final tableau of the play are also standouts. If you enjoy emotional, fun stories about female friendship, you will find much to love in Calendar Girls.
Calendar Girls runs at North Hollywood’s Lonny Chapman Theatre (10900 Burbank Blvd) through October 9th. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at www.thegrouprep.com.