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REVIEW: Fun, Playful Calendar Girls (Park Square)

Linda Kelsey (Jessie), Carolyn Pool (Celia), Laurel Armstrong (Cora), Charity Jones (Chris), Christina Baldwin (Annie). Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma.

Calendar Girls, now playing at Park Square Theatre, is an uncommon theatre experience and a play dominated by older female characters. Written by Tom Firth, this play is an adaptation of the 2003 movie by the same name (Firth was one of the movie’s co-writers). Since its 2008 London premiere, Calendar Girls has become wildly popular worldwide, with hundreds of licensed productions; Mary M. Finnerty directs the regional premiere.

The play is based on a true story of a group of middle age and older women who are members of the Women’s Institute (a woman’s club). Following the death of one of the women’s husband from leukemia, the group launched a nude calendar of its women members to raise money for the local hospital where cancer patients were being treated. Initially, the group was seeking money to buy new furniture for the waiting room, but their calendar proved to be an overwhelming success and raised over 3 million pounds for leukemia research. It also made minor celebrities of the women who posed for the calendar.

Carolyn Pool (Celia), Shanan Custer (Ruth), Linda Kelsey (Jessie), Laurel Armstrong (Cora), Charity Jones (Chris), Kory LaQuess Pullam  (Liam), and Christina Baldwin (Annie). Photo credit: Petronella J. Ytsma.
Carolyn Pool (Celia), Shanan Custer (Ruth), Linda Kelsey (Jessie), Laurel Armstrong (Cora), Charity Jones (Chris), Kory LaQuess Pullam (Liam), and Christina Baldwin (Annie). Photo credit: Petronella J. Ytsma.
In the play, John (John Middleton) is dying of leukemia and married to Annie (Christina Baldwin). Both Annie and John are given emotional support by Annie’s Women’s Institute group. The most supportive is Annie’s best friend Chris (Charity Jones). Chris’ husband is Rod (Bill McCallum), the local florist whose business is struggling. Others in the group include: Cora (Laurel Armstrong) who is the church organist and is estranged from her grown daughter; Jessie (Linda Kelsey) who is the oldest member of the group and a retired school teacher; Ruth (Shanan Custer) who has a philandering husband; and Celia (Carolyn Pool) who is from the upper-class but is neglected by her husband and has a drinking problem. When John dies, Chris decides the group should raise funds so that family members of cancer victims can have a nicer hospital waiting room. Given that the group’s traditional fundraising calendars showing churches and bridges did not sell very well, Chris decides that a calendar with nude models from the group’s membership would sell better. The group decides to do coy nude poses for the camera with each member doing activities such as knitting or baking with strategically placed props to cover breasts and other exposed body parts.

Most of the play centers on Annie’s and Chris’ relationship. Both Baldwin and Jones convey a strong sisterly bond between the two women as they have very different reactions to their celebrity status. But much of the humor in the show comes from the supporting characters. Most notable is Custer as the put upon Ruth. The running gag about her Easter costume was one highlights of the show. Julia Cook is a treat as the nominal leader of the local woman’s group even though the group does its best to work around her and often makes her the butt of their jokes. By far the funniest scene in the play is the photo session for the calendar. In this female-dominated play, Ryan Colbert repeatedly demonstrates priceless embarrassment as Lawrence, the hapless amateur photographer recruited to take the photos.

Scenic Designer Michael Hoover’s set is extremely functional for this play which is set mostly in the church hall where the women’s group meets. Lighting by Michael P. Kittel and the use of projections, magically transforms this set into a field of flowers by the show’s end.

Although the play is not a great work of art, it does succeed in establishing an identity separate from the movie upon which it is based. The wonderful cast with its great chemistry succeeds in making Calendar Girls a delightful summer comedy.

Calendar Girls plays through July 24 at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul.

Bev Wolfe