“Calendar Girls,” now running at Meadow Brook Theatre, is one of those charming, unlikely comedies that we know couldn’t happen in real life, except that it has. And that makes us like it that much more. The play was written by Tom Firth as an adaptation of his original screenplay for the movie of the same name. Both the play and the film were inspired by a group of middle aged women in Yorkshire who, in 1999, found an unorthodox way to raise money, awareness, and a few eyebrows, all to benefit Leukemia research. One of the women in the group had lost a husband to the illness, and they created a charity in his honor, funded by their own nude calendar. It worked, and the women involved became something of a media sensation.
This Meadow Brook Theatre production, directed by Artistic Director Travis W. Walter, feels like a loving mash-up of “Steel Magnolias,” with its women-power-rocks message, peppered with the edginess of “The Full Monty.” These are strong, good-hearted women who sometimes lock horns but are ultimately there for each other. And yes, they reluctantly take their clothes off to become “Calendar Girls,” but it’s all for a morally respectable reason and conducted in a totally tasteful way.
The play opens in the Knapeley Village chapter of the Women’s Institute in Yorkshire, where Chris is supervising a dubious Tai Chi class while Cora plays the hymn “Jerusalem” on the piano. Annie teases Chris about never following through on her schemes and, as the women abandon their exercise plans, they begin to laughingly parody each-other’s foibles. Annie’s adoring husband John walks in to mix drinks for the ladies’ celebration, and as the scene progresses, we learn that he has received news from his doctor, and it’s not good.
Time passes, as does John. The women honor his request to scatter sunflower seeds in the foothills of his beloved park land. They read aloud John’s last note about why he loves the sunflowers and how they remind him of the women themselves and their ripening beauty. They wish could do more by way of a memorial, and hit on the idea of replacing the lumpy, broken down settee in the hospital waiting room with something new. Unfortunately, the WI’s primary fundraiser, a calendar of scenic Yorkshire, barely pays for itself.
That’s when Chris hits on the idea of doing a calendar featuring the middle-aged WI women, not “naked,” she explains, but “nude,” which implies some level of artistic concealment. It’s a tough sell to the women asked to be featured in the racy calendar, and even harder to the respectable WI powers that be. But the women prevail, and along the way, share laughs, sorrows and a few angry words. As they gain notoriety, events swirl out of control, friendships are tested, and ultimately proved true.
Travis Walter has assembled a powerhouse cast, led by Debbie Williams as the bereaved Annie Clarke and Julie Glander as the gun-ho Chris Harper. “These women found a brilliant way to make a difference,” says Walter. “This comedy is not only funny, but also quite touching. Our audiences will love it. It’s a wonderful story and we’ve got a great cast to tell it.”
In addition to Williams and Glander, the Women’s Institute includes Stacy White as Cora Cleave, Mary Gant as Jessie Raistrick, Mary Jo Cuppone as Celia, Stephanie Nichols as Ruth, and Dorry Peltyn as Marie. Also featured are Ruth Crawford (Brenda Hulse and Lady Cravenshire), Richard Marlatt, (John Clarke), Phil Powers (Rod Harper), Garett Michael Harris (photographer Lawrence Snugden and Liam) and Kimberly Alley (Elaine).
As always, the MBT production values are fabulous. Set Design is by Jen Price Fick with lighting by Reid G. Johnson. Costumes are by Liz Goodall, sound is by Mike Duncan, and Terry Carpenter is the stage manager.
This Michigan premiere of “Calendar Girls” runs at Meadow Brook Theatre, on the campus of Oakland University in Rochester, through April 10, 2016. Performances are scheduled Wednesday through Sunday, but show times are varied and include a number of matinees, so it’s best to check the online calendar. Tickets range from $27 to $42 and are available by calling the Meadow Brook Theatre box office at 248-377-3300 or going online to Ticketmaster. Student discounts are available at the box office. Groups of eight or more should call 248-370-3316 for group pricing.