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'Calendar Girls' grins and bares it

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'Calendar Girls' grins and bares it (Photo courtesy of PTC/Magnus Stark)

Comedy offers laughter, friendshipand a little skin

BANGOR A group of ladies are letting it all hang out on the stage of the Bangor Opera House.

Penobscot Theatre Company is opening its 43rd season with their production of the comedy 'Calendar Girls.' The show adapted for the stage by Tim Firth from his screenplay of the film of the same name is directed by Angela Bonacasa and runs through Sept. 25.

This sweet comedy celebrates the bonds between friends as they come together and take it off in an effort to help one of their own find ways to move beyond a tragic personal loss. There are loads of laughs and more than a few tears as they love and support each other as best they can.

The women of the Knavely branch of the Women's Institute are a motley crew to be sure. There's the longtime schoolmistress Jessie (Alison Cox); the reformed bad girl turned church organist Cora (Margo Lukens); the pert, sassy golf widow Celia (Jasmine Ireland); the nave goody-two-shoes Ruth (Amy Roeder); and good friends and ringleaders Annie (Julie Lisnet) and Chris (Sharon Zolper).

The ladies meet in the church basement under the prissy leadership of Marie (Irene Dennis), doing the sorts of things ladies are expected to do things like knitting and making jam and watching interminable talks about incredibly dull subjects.

Everything changes for the women when Annie's husband Joe (Ron Lisnet) is struck with cancer. After a protracted battle against the disease, Joe succumbs. As a way to honor Joe's memory, Annie and Chris come up with an idea they want to raise money to buy a new settee for the family waiting room at the hospital.

The group does an annual fundraising calendar, so they decide that the settee will be this year's cause. But rather than the usual photos of churches or bridges, Chris comes up with the idea of doing something a little different for this one. She proposes that they do a nude calendar one for which they themselves will pose.

As you might imagine, some of the women aren't initially thrilled, but Chris's enthusiasm eventually wins them over. They enlist Lawrence (Brad LaBree) a hospital porter who worked with Joe and also happens to be a professional photographer - to help.

What follows is an absolute whirlwind one that includes speeches before the Women's Institute national council, international media attention and more than a few internal conflicts within the group. Each of the ladies deals with the attention in their own way, but as circumstances escalate, they're left wondering just what it is they have done and why they have done it.

PTC could not have chosen a better show with which to kick off their season. 'Calendar Girls' is hilarious, yes, but it also has a great deal of heart. It's a story that is entertaining and a bit over-the-top, yet still never feels anything less than genuine. That core honesty is what makes it such a good script.

But it's the cast and crew that makes this a great show.

Even after spending years as a part of the area theatre community, it's still incredible to see the depth of talent that local performers bring to the table. Simply put, this is an exceptional cast, one of the stronger ensembles to grace the Opera House stage that we've seen. Sharon Zolper and Julie Lisnet are phenomenal as Chris and Annie; their friendship serves as the foundation of the entire piece. Without an engaging and real dynamic between the two, the rest of the show can't soar. Luckily, they prove more than up to the task, giving the relationship a hilarious, heartfelt life. Whether sharing a laugh or pushing through tears, they are simply wonderful to watch.

Roeder is on point throughout, giving Ruth an innocence that leads to some of the night's biggest laughs. Cox gives equal play to Jessie's warm heart and crotchety exterior, while Lukens' take on Cora sings (both literally and figuratively). Ireland informs Celia with good-natured sass and a sweetness that belies her worldlier appearance. And Dennis is the picture of repressed propriety as Marie.

LaBree's comedic gifts are put to good use particularly in the calendar shoot scene that is perhaps the show's comic highlight; Lisnet brings his easygoing charm to a sweet, sad turn as Joe. Carol Varney, Mark Bilyk and Aimee Gerow also bring unique and vital energies to the proceedings.

Director Angela Bonacasa has a history of dealing with stage physicality as a longtime fight choreographer; she's a natural fit for a show such as this that requires intricate staging. A fluidity of movement is present throughout, though never more so in the exquisite and hilarious rapid-fire dis- and re-robing that takes place during the calendar shoot.

Scenic designer Tricia Hobbs has created a set that captures the rustic feel of a small-town English church basement; Scout Hough's lighting design compliments it nicely. Costume designer Kevin Koski offers up his usual exceptional work, as do sound designer Brandie Larkin and props designer Meredith Perry.

'Calendar Girls' is an excellent start to the PTC season. It is sweet without ever feeling cloying and sentimental without ever feeling cheesy. It is funny and heartfelt and poignant, with a little naughtiness and a whole lot of nice; a meaningful and genuine look at the power of friendship.

(For tickets or more information, contact the Penobscot Theatre box office at 942-3333 or visit their website at www.penobscottheatre.org.)

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