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Review: Lots of Laughter in CALENDAR GIRLS at the West Coast Players

"The last stage of the flower is the most glorious." --a quote from CALENDAR GIRLS

In theatre, the end of Act 1 is perhaps the most important part of a play. It sends the viewers joyfully into Intermission, and if it works, the same audience is glad to return for more. (When it doesn't, it's sad to see so many empty seats throughout Act 2.) In musicals, there are few Act 1 closers better than the "One Day More" flag-waving hurrah from Les Miserables, the galvanizing "A New Argentina" from Evita, or the finest song from La Cage Au Folles, "I Am What I Am." In the latest play at the West Coast Players, a non-musical, Tim Firth's CALENDAR GIRLS ends Act 1 uproariously. The audience wasn't just laughing; they were screaming in delight. Imagine "The Golden Girls" going semi-topless, or a near-nude Steel Magnolias, and you'll understand why.

The end of Act 1 of CALENDAR GIRLS caused such a geyser of hysterics and guffaws from the audience that we didn't have to worry about empty seats in Act 2.

Based on a popular 2003 Helen Mirren movie (which in turn was based on a true story), the plot is rather simple: Members of a ladies' organization in England disrobe and pose for a saucy calendar to raise money for a memorial settee in a hospital waiting room. A show like this needs just the right cast, guided by just the right director. And the West Coast Players certainly have that.

The likable, stoic Susan Gill plays Annie, the anchor of the group whose husband, John Clark (a touching, heartbreaking turn by T.J. Gill), has passed away from leukemia. Gill's Annie holds the play together, and her husband, T.J. Gill, is such a presence that we miss him when he's gone and understand why such a fuss is made over honoring him. The various ladies of the Women's Institute include the more carnal Celia (a funny Cherie B. Albury) as well as an organist named Cora and a former school teacher named Jessie (played respectively by Janice Cruneti and Trish Farber, both strong).

One of the ladies, Ruth, played by Elizabeth Bell, is wonderfully awkward and the life of the party. Bell does more with a facial expression than most silent film clowns. What she does with her tongue in the opening Tai Chi scene is amazing (it goes all over the place). She's a true comedienne. Although she falls back on shtick a bit too much for my tastes, you cannot take your eyes off her. A simple practice game of badminton between her and the uptight Marie (the chairwoman of the local WI, played to snooty heights by Kimen Mitchell) mines for comedy gold.

Best of all in the cast is Donna Donnelly as the free spirited, ribald Chris. Donnelly has proven herself a scene-stealer par excellence. In August: Osage County at Eight O'Clock Theatre, in Other Desert Cities at WCP and in Harvey at freeFall, she always attacks each character with so much gusto. And this role is her crowning achievement. She is so much fun to watch that we get sad-hearted whenever she leaves the stage; we want to chug more from her figurative jug of jubilation. The jubilation of performing, of owning the stage, of delighting an audience with a turn of phrase or a hilarious roll of the eyes.

One moment in particular of Donnelly's performance caught my attention. It's a little moment and one that underscores her character's heart. She walks on stage, passes the sick John Clark in a wheelchair, acknowledges him for a second, and pats his hand lovingly. It's a side moment, barely a wisp of an instant. But these are the moments we remember, the unscripted but heartfelt gestures when it's not even the character's line. This is what acting is about: being in character the whole time and showing all of the sadness and love in one simple motion.

Director Tom Costello must be applauded for leading these ladies in their fine characterizations and keeping the show's pace moving forward without missing a beat. It's never dull, and Costello squeezes so much comedy from his wonderful community theatre cast.

Costello and Jason Freeman's lighting is workmanlike, and the set design of the intimate theatre (by Costello and Graham Jones) is nothing special (nor does it need to be). I do like that the set includes props such as stacks of National Geographic magazines and games of Sorry, Hangman and Battleship; sometimes it's those little touches that I appreciate most. The staging is well done, except in a scene or two when many actors are on the stage, standing by, hands folded, looking like they're in a museum. But Costello works sheer magic in the infamous end of Act 1. It's rightly choreographed like a musical and works beautifully. I doubt I will see a funnier scene this entire year.

Although CALENDAR GIRLS is full of mirth and definitely worth your time, it is not perfect. Act 2 of the script meanders quite a bit, and we never come close to the highs of the end of Act 1 (that said, how could we?). The accents of the actresses are all over the place; this is supposed to be England, but not all of them have true British accents. One fine actor (Rick Bronson) plays two parts (Lawrence and Liam), and he's quite accomplished and amusing, but more could have been done to differentiate the two characters physically (using more than just a Scottish kilt). Some of the other minor parts don't carry the necessary punch. But these aren't major issues, and they do not get in the way of our enjoyment of the story.

You owe it to yourself to witness the play, especially the end of Act 1, where these fine, brave, hilarious actresses pose as nature intended them, with various items covering their womanliness. Each actress gets her moment in the buff (or barely buff), and each earns a hearty applause from the audience. A party atmosphere ensued, and it was just so much fun, even if the story is underlined by the sadness of why the calendars were being created in the first place. But the whole thing is so damned entertaining, and isn't that one of the primary reasons we go to the theatre?

CALENDAR GIRLS runs through February 7th. Obviously it is for mature audiences. And yes, there are actual calendars of the lovely ladies for sale in the WCP lobby. For tickets, please call (727) 43-SCENE (437-2363).

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From This Author - Peter Nason