Sometimes the most engaging stories happen in real life, and Laurel Mill Playhouse has zeroed in on a treasure in “Calendar Girls,” Tim Firth’s delightful comedy based on the true story of a group of middle-aged British women who posed nude to raise funds for Leukemia research.
The stage play — adapted from the 2003 indie film of the same name by Buena Vista International and Touchstone Pictures — tells the story of a group of women from the Women’s Institute who bared their chests to honor a member’s deceased husband.
“Calendar Girls” first appeared onstage at the Chichester Festival Theater in Sussex in the fall of 2008. After touring nationally, it surfaced at the West End the following spring. Closing at the Noel Coward Theatre in London in 2010, the play went on to tour the United Kingdom for three more years.
A musical version that premiered in West Yorkshire four years ago is currently touring the UK.
Produced and directed here by Maureen Rogers and Michael Hartsfield, respectively, the show opens to a pale green, beautifully appointed set (designed by Ilene Chalmers and Hartsfield) that transports audience members to the church hall in Yorkshire where the WI members meet.
As Hartsfield’s lights rise, Sam David as Chris leads a class of attractive women in their 40s-60s — Mimi McGinniss as Cora, Nina Harris as Annie, Maureen Rogers as Jessie, Cathy Holmes as Celia and Hillary Glass as Ruth — in an obviously made-up Tai Chi routine.
Enter Becky Batt as Marie and a flash of competitiveness between the conservative WI chairwoman and Chris, who are both take-charge types, adds wonderful spice to the mix.
Marie is intent on planning the WI calendar featuring views of local churches to raise money for charity. But Chris disrupts her discussion by cracking jokes about producing an alternative calendar that features George Clooney and “a little flap” on the December photo.
Little do any of the women know in this lighthearted moment that Annie’s husband John (played by Bill Brekke) will lose his battle with Leukemia, and all but a horrified Marie will pose nude for a WI calendar to raise money to replace a hospital settee where Annie spent long hours waiting during John’s chemo treatments.
As John (at the heart of the story), Brekke delivers a courageous and good humored character. He and Harris (who is excellent as Annie) create lovely chemistry as a loving couple battling an insidious disease.
Hartsfield’s lead actresses all deliver stellar performances. What it takes for Chris to convince Annie and each of the friends to pose nude not only stirs up great comedy, but reveals the depth of each character.
As the parson’s daughter, Cora, McGuiness plays both the piano and her acting role beautifully.
David shines in the multi-faceted role of the women’s gutsy leader, Chris, who comes face-to-face her with her motives for producing the nude calendar when her friendship with Annie is tested.
And then there is Rogers, a standout who brings on exceptional comedic timing and delivery as the most mature member of the group, Jessie. One can wonder whether she is cast in the funniest roles or whether Rogers makes her roles the funniest — her signature-style delivery of the line, “It looks like she’s got pelvic floor trouble” is a hoot.
Holmes makes a subtly sexy and enigmatic Celia, and Glass is nothing less than adorable as Ruth, the self-effacing wife who finds her confidence and her courage by play’s end.
As the antagonist, Batt as Marie strikes excellent contrast with an equally strong performance. Marie’s reaction when the calendar raises more money than anyone dreamed it would is priceless.
Ann Henry as Brenda Hulse, Lenny Dinerman as Rod (Chris’s husband), Marge McGugan (who also designed costumes) as Lady Cravenshire, Anwar Al-Mallah as Lawrence (the photographer), Dana Fleisher as Elaine (the makeup girl) and Jack Wassell as Liam (the television producer) are also very good.
Much can also be said for Hartsfield’s artful direction. Patrons on the edge of their seat waiting for the nude reveal may be surprised by his clever and tasteful staging, but they won’t be disappointed.
A wild and soulful ride, “Calendar Girls” plays like a dance that is over too soon. But what makes an inspirational evening at Laurel Mill Playhouse even sweeter is knowing the journey is real.
“Calendar Girls” continues through Sunday, April 7, Laurel Mill Playhouse, 508 Main St., with Friday and Saturday performances at 8 p.m.; and Sunday matinee performances March 31 and April 7 at 2 p.m. General admission is $20; seniors 65 and over pay $15. For tickets, go to laurelmillplayhouse.org.