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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Calendar Girls
Phoenix Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of Jane Lynch: See Jane Sing!, Grand Concourse, The Comedy of Errors, and The Andrews Brothers


Elyse Wolf and Shari Watts
Photo by Erin Evangeline Photography
The 2003 British comedy film Calendar Girls was a big hit at the box office. Based on the true story of a group of women in Northern England who seductively pose for a nude calendar to raise funds for Leukemia Research, the movie was adapted into a play and Phoenix Theatre presents the Arizona premiere with a superb cast of some of the top actresses in the Valley.

The play focuses on a group of women who are members of the Yorkshire branch of the Women's Institute, a women's voluntary organization. When Annie's husband John dies from leukemia, her best friend Chris makes it her mission to raise funds to purchase a settee in his honor at the local hospital. Finding out how well calendars with discreet nudity sell, Chris decides it would bring in more money for the cause if the women in the Women's Institute posed nude for the calendar compared to the local country scenes that Marie, the head of their Institute, plans to feature. But can Chris convince her fellow WI members to pose nude without Marie finding out? And will anyone even buy a calendar featuring discreet nude photos of women "of a certain age"?

The play was adapted by Tim Firth from the screenplay he wrote with Juliette Towhidi which it follows fairly closely. A few minor characters and situations have been changed or eliminated but the realistic characters and humorous and heart-lifting scenes are intact. However, there is minimal drama beyond Chris' butting heads with Marie and some minor confrontations and misunderstandings among the women. And, while the comical moments work best, the dramatic ones lose a little impact without the benefits of film close-ups.

Fortunately, Phoenix Theatre's cast is top drawer featuring the cream of the crop of the Valley's "mature" actresses, plus a stellar turn by newcomer to the area Elyse Wolf, who plays Chris. Wolf and Shari Watts, as Annie, form a realistic pair of best friends. Wolf has great comedic timing while Watts gives a lovely, assured delivery in the sensitive moments of the play. Johanna Carlisle, Patti Davis, Cathy Dresbach, and Debra K. Stevens round out the main female roles, with each delivering well thought out characters with some depth, even though the script doesn't always give them much to play off of. Carlisle is hilarious as the unafraid, bawdy and busty Celia; Davis is winning as the retired school teacher who still has plenty of life left in her; Stevens is bright and fun as the piano playing Cora; and Dresbach instills the right struggle between British repressiveness and the desire to break out of the role that people believe she should be playing. In just a few brief scenes, D. Scott Withers instills a great connection with Watts, as well as all of the women in the cast, as John; and Maren Maclean paints Marie with appropriate shades of disdain and authority and a small amount of understanding. Also, Will Hightower adds some humor as the shocked, but caring, photographer and David Dickinson is charming as Chris' husband.

Director EE Moe achieves a fast-paced production and derives well balanced performances from her entire cast, letting the comedy shine bright but not overstepping the emotion at the core of the story. The nude scenes are discreetly staged but also delivered with hilarious results. Creative elements are charming, with Douglas Clarke's scenic design fairly simple but colorful, Addy Diaz's costumes fun and bright, and William Kirkham's lighting stunningly serene.

While the theatrical version of Calendar Girls adds very little to the joys of the film, it does result, like the movie, in a heartwarming and moving affair. And seeing some of the best actresses in town having a field day, baring both their hearts and their bodies, is a joyous enough reason to pay them a visit.

Calendar Girls runs through February 7th, 2016, at the Phoenix Theatre at 100 E. McDowell Road in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at phoenixtheatre.com or by calling 602-254-2151.

EE Moe: Director
Pasha Yamotahari: Resident Dramaturge
Marie Quinn: Sound Designer
William Kirkham: Lighting Designer
Douglas Clarke: Scenic Designer
Addy Diaz: Costume Designer
Tyler Welden: Props Designer
Kim Nolan: Hair/Make-up Consultant
Mark Reynolds: Director of Production
Karla Fredrick: Associate Production Manager
Michelle Elias*: Stage Manager
Melissa Richter: Assistant Stage Manager

Cast:
Johanna Carlisle: Celia
Patti Davis*: Jessie
David Dickinson: Rod
Cathy Dresbach*: Ruth
Will Hightower: Lawrence/Liam
Hilary Hirsch: Understudy: Ruth & Lady C/Brenda
Maren Maclean*: Marie Debby Rosenthal*: Lady C/Brenda Debra K. Stevens: Cora
Gabrielle Van Buren: Elaine
Shari Watts: Annie
D. Scott Withers: John
Elyse Wolf*: Chris

*Members of Actors' Equity Association


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