Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
Calendar Girls, directed here by Nancy Sellin, is funny and delightful. It's not often you come across a play where the leads are all female, and the supporting players all male. But as it was in real life, so it is on stage. Sellin cast this piece well, for it takes courage of a different kind to perform this work publicly. Without exception, the six leading ladies sparkle. In a tangle of laughter and pathos, we see and often feel what led to the actual events, an unfathomable almost quarter century ago.
Normally, I try to not spoil the story by saying too much or giving too much away. In this case, however, I could include the entire script and it wouldn't make any difference. This piece must be experienced, and I really recommended you do exactly that, or you will miss the opportunity to share in the relationships and the teasing, playful, sisterly connections from which family, born of friendship, springs.
The real events took place in Yorkshire, England, in 1999, when 11 members of the Rylstone district Women's Institute aged between 45 and 65, after one member's husband died from blood cancer, posed nude for a calendar to raise money for a new couch for the waiting room of the leukemia ward at the local hospital. Yet this summary, while seemingly giving everything away, is just a silhouette. The real story isn't about bare boobs and other wobbly bits–it's about love. When we meet the ladies, we have no doubt as to their individual personalities. Ranging from the super self-assured to the downtrodden, we see the relationships they have with each other, their spouses, and the world in general. And this is where the true story lies.
Firth does a great job of swiftly developing each character, and this cast does justice to his work. Opening night initially a little hesitant, they soon warmed up, the audience warming up along with them. You will genuinely like these people–unintentionally amusing, unashamedly human, self-conscious yet valiant. These are people you wish you knew–ordinary people whose every achievement you will applaud, and whose every failing you will forgive. They are like us, or the us we hope we'd be.
The intrepid Chris, played by Stephanie Jones, runs a flower shop with her husband Rod, and teaches tai chi from a book she hasn't read. Annie (Rhonda Sigler-Ware), still in love with John, her husband of many years, is devastated by his medical results. Self-assured and impudent, Carolyn Hogan is perfect as Celia, who ostensibly has it all, yet underneath is jaded by the façade and the pretentious wealthy life she married into. Poor little Ruth, docile and anxious from spousal exploitation, initially declines to join in the proposal, but under Duchess Dale's care, surprises even herself. Retired, vigorous and confident, Jessie (played by Georgia Athern) keeps things on track, and even Cora, the piano-playing vicar's daughter, played by Michelle Bunzel, has her own secret to keep.
Then there's Marie, played by Leslee Richards (think a slender, athletic Hyacinth Bucket), who tries in vain to corral the mostly irreverent group, fearing their shenanigans will bring disapproval from the local gentry whose admiration and acceptance she desperately seeks. Small cameo roles are played by Kay Peters Johnson, as the oblivious Lady Cravenshire who views the "girls" as an unknown species, Diane Segara, whose character Brenda comes to speak at the Women's institute and is obsessed by James Bond and broccoli, and finally Jessica Alden's Elaine, the patronizing beautician and Ruth's unexpected catalyst for change.
From Annie's beloved husband John (Joel Daniel Miller) we learn the importance of sunflowers–these "satellites for sunshine." You'll get a kick out of photographer Lawrence's (Jason Godin) hilarious realization, be charmed by Neil Faulconbridge's Rod, Chris's kind, loving husband, and sympathize with the weary Liam (Scott Claunch), who has no luck trying to direct the ladies.
Much needed "Dutch courage" appears from a variety of locations, and there is clever use of reflective shields and simply wonderful alternative costumery. It is lovely how Beatles songs herald or support each scene, with "The Pink Panther Theme Song" melody being a very amusing and apt addition.
Shout out to Carolyn Hogan (Celia), who does triple duty as props designer and costume designer, and to Jason Godin (Lawrence), who pulls double duty as resident costume designer. Sound, set, and lighting are all great. And, as always, kudos to stage manager and crew.
It's clever, this production, and I really appreciate clever. Perhaps the accents wander around somewhat and the scene changes are a little slow, but watching the hilarious moment that resembles a preschoolers' ballet recital rather than a tai chi class and learning the true import of "emergency bourbon" and the significance of naked vs nude, we discover it's never too late to take charge of our beautiful wrinkly selves and live the life we were made for.
Calendar Girls runs through September 24, 2023, at The Adobe Theater, 9813 4th Street NW, Albuquerque, NM. For tickets and information, please visit www.adobetheater.org.