Sunday, July 14, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 178, A Review: "Calendar Girls" (Connecticut Cabaret Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

"We're not naked, we're nude."

Thus, begins "Calendar Girls," the much-ballyhooed stage adaptation of Tim Firth's 2003 British comedy inspired by the over-the-top antics of the Rylstone and District Women's Institute who dished up a storm of social media attention back in 1999 by chucking off all their clothes and posing naked for an unofficial WI calendar tastefully surrounded by well-placed sunflowers, puff pastries and decadent cake-baking desserts including Victoria Sponge, Fairy Cupcakes and Harrogate Jam Tarts.

A female "Full Monty" of sorts, the film contained lots of wit and pluck as it openly realized the calendar's humble beginnings, the actual photo shoot, its impact on the community and finally, not only the baring of bodies, but the baring of souls. With a cast that included Helen Mirren, Julie Walters, Linda Bassett, Penelope Wilton and Annette Crosbie,  "Calendar Girls" became an immediate hit earning high marks for its poignant cheer, genuine insight, confident storytelling and the sparkling performances of its well-honed ensemble cast.

The stage version, adapted for the theater by Firth who also penned the screenplay, debuted in 2008 at the Chichester Festival Theatre before transferring to the Noel Coward Theatre in London's West End in 2009. It too was a financial success, attracting several different casts of well-known British actresses, all of whom loved the material, its winning formula, its Yorkshire wit, its unabashed shamelessness and its heartfelt characters.

The appeal of "Calendar Girls" and its lingering sense of friendship, close-knit community ties, nostalgia and earthy humor permeate Connecticut Cabaret Theatre's frothy imagining of the  two-act comedy, which happily thrusts the Yorkshire women back into the media spotlight ready to strip naked once again for the WI calendar that became an international sensation.

"No front bottoms!"


The pace never falters in this breezy, remarkably brisk re-enactment fueled by Tim Firth's flip writing and his wonderful sense of unbuttoned charm, atmospheric intimacy, haughty one-liners and comfortable displays of affection, whimsy and British drollery.

Here, as in the film version of "Calendar Girls," Firth crafts a full-on entertainment of kinetic energy and welcoming emotional progression. The plot goes its own way in terms of live performance with nary a hiccup or wrong move. The characters themselves are fun, buoyant and gleeful, but never overbearing. Firth's inviting, cheerful voice also guides us through the familiar story with soft-bodied jauntiness and elation.

Taking his cue from Firth, director Kris McMurray shapes this oft-told story of the Yorkshire Women's Institute who happily stripped and posed naked for a very good cause with plenty of Yorkshire gumption, uninhibited wit and cynical consciousness. Though his eyes there is nothing remotely obscene about what these women do. They strip to conquer -  not to shock or titillate. It's all in fun and FUN is what you get with playful doses of camaraderie, propriety, charm and sympathy thrown in for extra measure.

As "Calendar Girls" evolves, McMurray's deft hand for cleverly-conceived comedy and how it all plays out before a live audience is inspired, feisty and high-spirited. Blocking, stage movement and scene changes are fast, fluid and completely in sync with what unfolds in close proximity between actor and audience. Everything is well thought out and balanced without any form of rehearsed feel. The action is truthful and spontaneous. McMurray sticks to the subject matter and doesn't resort to any cheap tricks to get an additional laugh or two. He knows exactly what he wants and that's exactly what you get.

One of the play's best moments comes when the women gather for the actual photographic shoot of the calendar which requires them to pose naked using strategically placed flowers, teapots and assorted oversized pastries as props. Here, the laughter is non stop as McMurray kicks the action into high gear using lots of inventive, well-timed comic flourishes - sight gags, double takes, barbed humor, punch lines, dropped clothing, bare flesh  -  that prompt laughter in all the right places. Because each of poses are different from character to character, additional laughter comes once the final outcome is revealed in hilarious, surprise fashion that you didn't see coming.

In terms of casting, McMurray, an actor himself, always surrounds himself with the best possible talent for every one of his productions. Here, he has found the ideal group of women to play the "Calendar Girls" of the show's title. They are Tracey Brown (Ruth), Barbara Horan (Annie), Karen Gagliardi (Chris), Jennifer Nadeau (Cora), Bonnie Sprague (Jessie), and Carleigh Cappetta-Schultz (Celia). All six - in their own right - are strong, confident actresses who deliver lively, intuitive, entertaining performances in their own very unique way. Their fantastic sense of comic timing, characterization and interaction with one another is portrayed to great effect in the two-act comedy.

As Lawrence, the uptight, fretful photographer who has been chosen to photograph the women naked, James J. Moran, a master at playing comedy, offers yet another snappy, energetic performance involving lots of slapstick, double takes and an embarrassing situation or two. The sublime silliness of it all, matched by Moran's verbal dexterity and humor, accelerates the action most engagingly.

Cast in the part of Liam, the youngish director of a washing powder advert featuring the show's six calendars girls, CJ Janis turns his relatively small role into one of the main highlights of Act II. He's funny. He's quirky. He's manic. He's out of sorts. He's gloriously desperate. At the same time, he possesses that astonishing sense of comic actor entitlement that would make him the ideal candidate for lead and supporting roles in plays penned by Oscar Wilde, Joe Orton, Ray Cooney, Michael Frayn and Noel Coward.

Sweet, sentimental and a whole lot of cheeky fun, "Calendar Girls" draws its audience into the real-life story and community of the Yorkshire Dales' women with warmth, compassion and playful naughtiness. Tim Firth's hugely popular story gives the show's leading ladies several individual moments to shine, as did the celluloid original. Director Kris McMurray keeps the play's hysterically funny premise enlightening in a very big way. That jaunty sense of humor also gives this production a warm-hearted glow that canters weightlessly and elevates the story with clarity, ambition and very good cheer.

"Calendar Girls" is being staged at Connecticut Cabaret Theatre (31-33 Webster Square Rd., Berlin, CT), now through August 3.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 829-1248.

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