Phoenix Theatre's Calendar Girls Gets a Lift From Its Excellent Cast

Last month, I met an actress who told me I'd once compared her performance in a play to "a dank flatulence." I don't remember this, but it sounds like something I might have written, so I believed her. She may be relieved to know I found her neither humid nor smelly in Phoenix Theatre's current production of Calendar Girls. In fact, it is the acting talents of its cast that save this workaday comedy.

Calendar Girls is based on Nigel Cole's 2003 film, written by Tim Firth. The play, a breezy two-act adapted by Firth, debuted in London's West End in 2009 and was an immediate sales success, although critics mostly loathed it. Based on a true story, it follows a group of "mature" British women who produce a calendar of nude photographs of themselves to raise money for leukemia research.

Act One winds up with the inevitable "nude" photo shoot, providing the show with a gimmick and its female cast the opportunity to giggle and shriek while posing behind carefully placed props and set pieces. Director E. E. Moe deserves the applause with which this complicated sequence is usually greeted. Her first-rate choreography turns chaos into an amusing montage.

Her cast is up for such a challenge. In a two-hour story about 10 women, there's little room for fully formed characters and few chances to create a standout performance. Yet Debra K. Stevens is a beacon, playing a moderate minister's daughter with warmth and sass. As a class-conscious conservative, Cathy Dresbach also shines, yanking comedy out of simple situations and pulling off the best British accent of the bunch.

The men are mostly set dressing, although D. Scott Withers is pleasant in a first-act cameo as the fellow whose death inspires the calendar. Johanna Carlisle delivers the best line of the play ("Just because I moved to Yorkshire doesn't mean I have to sit on it!" she bellows when asked to take a seat on the ground) and elevates a one-dimensional role with some subtle movement. In a pair of supporting roles that ask little of her talents, Debby Rosenthal continues to defy time and gravity, looking no older than she did on this same stage, where she played the lead in Gypsy a quarter-century ago.

In the UK, where photos of undraped ladies still carry a whiff of scandal, Firth's randy references to classism likely have more sting. In Phoenix, the best reason to see Calendar Girls is its notable cast. And that is reason enough.

Calendar Girls continues through February 7 at Phoenix Theatre, 100 E. McDowell Road. Call 602-254-2151 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.com.

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