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Colonial Players' stellar production of British film writer Tim Firth's "Calendar Girls" is continuing to provoke strong emotions — and uproarious laughter — from Annapolis audiences in a run continuing through March 11.

The true story that inspired Firth's dramedy centered on Angela Baker and her quest to raise funds for a memorial to her husband, John Baker, a National Park Officer who died of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma at age 54.

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From this somber quest, Baker's friends joined her in promoting an idea of an alternative to their usual scenic area fundraiser calendar — replacing it with a nude calendar that featured volunteers from the Yorkshire Women's Institute as calendar girls.

The calendar sold 88,000 copies in Great Britain and, the following year, sold another 240,000 copies in the United States, netting millions for leukemia and lymphoma research.

"Calendar Girls" celebrates the success of that effort and the intrepid women who served as its middle-aged models. Firth wrote the 2008 stage adaptation from his 2003 hit film, and the show debuted at London's West End.

The Colonial Players production includes a ensemble whose unmistakable camaraderie adds a joyous element. Director Debbie Barber-Eaton delivers the essentials for every scene, from electric excitement of the photo shoot to the poignancy of John and Annie dealing with his illness.

The entire production offers a palpable warmth of camaraderie rooted in mutual respect.

The highlight photo shoot scene gains added punch with Barber-Eaton's superb choreography, coaxing maximum laughter as a bevy of unsuspected beauties blossom before our eyes.

In contrast, she creates a poignant quiet scene that is equally effective as jovial John, portrayed by Rick Estberg, copes stoically with his illness through a powerful parting scene.

The show builds in opening scenes that introduce the Yorkshire women friends and institute members. Through witty banter we learn that Annie, played by Marti Pogonowski, and husband are coping with his disease with quiet strength.

Her fellow institute members include initially reticent Jessie, played by Mary Fawcett Watko, who later gains spirit and fire; retired teacher, choir director and single mom Cora, played by Shannon Benil; and branch leader Marie, played by Darice Clewell, who is more conservative than most — until everything changes with John's death.

Benil's Cora delivers the most memorable musical moment with a stunning rendition of "Stormy Weather." She superbly accompanies herself on piano — an instrument she only learned to play for this wondrous performance. Benil is equally stunning in her voluptuous, gorgeous Miss January pose.

Another transformation is delivered by Karen Lambert as tall, meek and shy Ruth, garbed in a long black artist's smock. Ruth is terrified to pose nude — but ultimately gets the vote for show-stopping gorgeous, rivaling Benil but with extra height that lends a striking element. Her relaxed pose lying on her stomach creates a bold, beautiful image.

Kudos are due to every Calendar Girl — from Laura Gayvert as Chris, who champions the calendar from the beginning, to Lynne Garretson as Celia, who challenges conventional thinking and becomes a notable and fearless Miss October.

In addition to Rick Estberg as John, the male cast members include Jason Vellon as Lawrence, the shy young photographer assigned to photograph the Calendar Girls, and Eric Lund, who plays Chris' adoring husband, Rod.

Barber-Eaton, the superb cast and excellent tech crew deliver a terrific show. More than a feel-good comedy, "Calendar Girls" celebrates the courage and innovative persuasive skills of these women who took on challenges while strengthening their supportive friendships.

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"Calendar Girls" continues weekends through March 11 at Colonial Players, 108 East Street, Annapolis. For ticket information and showtimes: 410-268-7373, boxoffice@thecolonialplayers.org or thecolonialplayers.org.

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