Reviewed by Neal Weaver
The Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre
Through October 9
When a group of middle-aged ladies in Yorkshire, in northern England, decided to bare (almost) all to raise money for leukemia research, they got more than they bargained for. In addition to raising a fortune for their charity, they also created a scandal that gained them international attention. Their story was made into a highly successful film starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters, with a screenplay by Juliet Towhidi and Tim Firth. Then co-author Firth wrote a stage version of the piece, which scored a spectacular success in England. It’s that stage adaptation that is now on view at the Lonny Chapman Theatre, under the direction of Larry Eisenberg.
After her husband (Doug Haverty) husband of dies of leukemia at the age of 58, Annie (Lauren Peterson) and her live-wire best friend Chris (Michelle Bernath) hatch the idea of raising money for leukemia research by creating a nude calendar featuring local women. Those included are Chris and Annie, church organist and vicar’s daughter, Cora (LizAnne Keigley), sexpot Celia (Vesna Tolomanoska), retired teacher Jessie (Cheryl Crossland Butler), and housewife Ruth (Julie Davis). The women are initially fearful and reluctant, but Chris is persuasive, and they overcome their fears and agree to pose for their “nude” pictures (which aren’t really very nude) with strategically placed props to hide their more intimate parts.
Much of the comedy stems from the women’s nervousness about appearing more or less naked, and their reliance on alcohol to provide them with enough Dutch courage to go through with it. This particular scene garners almost non-stop laughter, but it comes fairly early in the evening, and the rest of the play deals with their dismay and gratification when their calendar brings in a small fortune (88,000 copies sold) and turns them into celebrities.
The six female performers display considerable comic chops as well as skin, and for most of its length the piece is amusing and entertaining (though toward the end it bogs down a bit due to a few too many plot turns). In any case, it’s more heart-warming than risqué.
One of the upshots of the original calendar was that it served to empower women to confront personal issues involving their self-esteem and body image, a development that contributed to its success. That phenomenon proves a bit less convincing in this production because of its emphasis on the comedy, but it is discussed at length.
Director Eisenberg gives the piece a lively production, and he’s well-served by the ensemble, including Belinda Howell as a disapproving representative of the Women’s Institute (which was the official sponsor of the calendar).
Kent Inasy provides the cheery, floral patterned set, Angela M. Eads supplies the costumes, and Hisato Masuyama and Kyra Schwartz created those strategically placed props.
The Group Rep at The Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m. (818) 763-5990 or www.thegrouprep.com. Running time: two hours and 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.