'The Girls': Theater Review

Courtesy of Matt Crockett/Dewynters
Showing its age.

Take That frontman Gary Barlow joins the team as composer for a musical based on 'Calendar Girls,' the hit 2003 film starring Helen Mirren.

Another year, another calendar — or to be precise, another version of Calendar Girls. The true story about a group of middle-aged Yorkshire women who pluckily posed for a nude calendar in order to raise money for their local hospital has already been made into a film and a play. And now it's a musical, penned by the same man responsible for its previous incarnations, Tim Firth, teamed with prolific British singer-songwriter Gary Barlow, frontman of Take That.

But as charming and box-office friendly as the story may be, creatively it really doesn’t merit this much adaptation. Indeed, Barlow’s introduction to the musical, Finding Neverland, was a reminder that not every story can or should be put to music — or at least not Barlow’s music. 

Though entertaining, the film version of Calendar Girls demonstrated the dramatic limitations of the material, the attention held only by a classy cast led by Helen Mirren, Julie Waters and Penelope Wilton; by all accounts the play felt even more scantily clad. As a musical it is virtually naked, the plot stretched to the breaking point and wearing next to nothing in the way of commendable song.

In the English northern town of Knapely, best friends Chris (Claire Moore) and Annie (Joanna Riding) are finding the formulaic activities of their Women’s Institute painfully tedious — all baking and knitting, regular renditions of "Jerusalem" and guest speakers on such topics as "the fascinating world of broccoli."

When Annie’s husband John dies of leukemia, Chris has the lovely idea of the institute raising money for a much-needed sofa in the hospital’s family room. But they need something a little more lucrative than the usual institute calendar with its views of local churches. Her risqué solution will force herself, Annie and reluctant friends to overcome their inhibitions, while pitching them against the uptight WI establishment.

With Firth also directing, the production aims for maximum British breeziness from the outset. Robert Jones' set design is a colorful evocation of the Yorkshire Dales, with an undulating wall of cupboards forming its lower contours and a big blue sky overhead. And the evening opens with the entire cast performing "Yorkshire," a song extolling their community — while also hinting at the monotony that the women will soon be escaping.

However, if the song is a statement of intent, it's a pretty feeble one — quaint and bland and instantly forgettable. And with two or three exceptions, notably a number in which the excellent Riding's Annie painfully imagines a life without her husband, this will remain the case.

For much of the time, actors merely raise the tempo of their dialogue to a few bars of music. It feels terribly lame. And since there is just one "writing" credit assigned jointly to Firth and Barlow, they must jointly assume the blame for that. 

The structure of the piece also remains a challenge. In the earlier versions, the creation of the calendar came early, denying both film and play a natural climax. Here Firth moves it to the end, which creates a more distinct arc to the story, but it also means that much of the second half is taken up with procrastination, as each of the women is given her moment of doubt — and then, one by one and very much playing to the audience, her moment of naked glory. It does become rather tiresome.

Nevertheless, anyone new to the story itself would find it funny and poignant — the original ladies' bold endeavor in honor of a loved one is truly moving — and a necessary corrective to a body-fascistic society. Even the second or third time around, Firth's jokes, usually around the novelty of and reaction to middle-aged disrobing, continue to hit the mark. And the actresses are a game and characterful collective.

Meanwhile, Barlow is currently at the helm of a BBC talent contest, Let It Shine, with the aim of creating a boy band for a stage show featuring the music of Take That. Maybe that's a sensible way of exploring whether he really has the chops for musical theater.

Venue: The Phoenix Theatre, London
Cast: Joanna Riding, Claire Moore, Sophie-Louise Dann, Debbie Chazen, Claire Machin, Michelle Dotrice, Marian McLoughlin, James Gaddas, Joe Caffrey, Steve Giles
Director: Tim Firth
Book and music: Tim Firth and Gary Barlow
Set and costume designer: Robert Jones
Lighting designer: Tim Lutkin
Sound designer: Terry Jardine, Nick Lidster
Projection designer: Alex Uragallo
Musical staging: Lizzi Gee
Comedy staging: Jos Houben
Orchestrations: Richard Beadle
Presented by: David Pugh & Dafydd Rogers, The Shubert Organization

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