What’s good for the boys in THE FULL MONTY is good for THE GIRLS.
The fine new London musical by Gary Barlow and Tim Firth has a great deal to offer – even a bit of nudity for those who are titillated by that.
For this is the musicalization of CALENDAR GIRLS, first a 2003 film that Firth co-wrote and then a 2009 stage play that he penned alone. It made it to the West End but hasn’t yet played Broadway.
Here’s hoping this musical will. For those who like shows that make them laugh as well as cry, THE GIRLS is an all-too-rare splendid one.
It’s based on a true story. In 1998, some women from a small village in North Yorkshire, England felt for their friend whose husband had contracted non-Hodgkin lymphoma. When they visited him in the hospital, they noticed that the couch in the waiting room was threadbare to the point where its springs had burst through the fabric. That didn’t go easy on each woman’s gluteus maximus.
After the husband died, her friends decided to raise money to buy a new sofa in his name. But how?
Some names have been changed, so here it’s Annie (an exceptional Joanna Riding) and John (a plaintive James Gaddas) who bear the brunt of his illness and Chris (the superlative and charming Claire Moore) who’s Annie’s best friend. Chris has been grumbling about their women’s club where they hear lectures on utterly uninteresting subjects.
The club members nevertheless attend both to be with their own. Never mind that it means their being subjected to a speaker who tells you everything you never wanted to know about broccoli and had no interest in asking. As one woman rues, “We’re doing what our mums used to do” – and what thought is more depressing than that?
Chris also grumbles that the usual annual women’s club calendar is on the stodgy side. She suggests that everyone spice it up by appearing nude, albeit with strategically placed items to assure some modesty.
It’s a scandal and an outrage to many of the women. But if eleven angry men are able to change their mind about a court case, perhaps eleven fearful women can change theirs about a calendar, too.
The music is ‘60s bubble-gum bouncy and wonderfully infectious (in the best sense of that word). It’s the perfect sound for these women; they feel young inside, so their music should reflect what they listened to and loved in their youth.
The lyrics are nicely crafted and sport subtly impressive ideas. In order to show how time inexorably progresses, the opening number just happens to mention all the months of year. Little do these women know that they’ll soon be asked to put their mark on those months.
Many lyrics underline who the characters are. Chris’ son Danny (a first-rate Ben Hunter) is mortified by his mother’s upcoming nudity, which adds to his already woeful trouble: Danny is a virgin who’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown. As he says in one bright lyric, he practices “no-mogamy.”
One striking song tells us “The years turn into months; the months turn into days; the days turn into hours.” Wait, you’re saying, you’ve got it backwards: The HOURS turn into days, the DAYS into months, et cetera.”
No, the way I wrote is the way it’s sung – for this is John’s song in which he ruminates on the doctor’s prediction of how much time he has left. Once he heard he had years, but that was long ago and the clock of doom keeps ticking.
So impressed by the score was I that during intermission I rushed to the merchandise booth to buy the CD. Yes, the price would be outrageous, but finding a London store that sells discs at a discount is now near-impossible.
But the merch woman told me “No, the soundtrack isn’t out yet.” (To quote a mid-20th century folk song, “When will they ever learn? When will they EVVVVVVER learn?”)
Finch’s excellent job at directing undermines the knee-jerk belief that a playwright shouldn’t stage his own work. Who knows better where the humor is? After the first woman to take off her bra throws it into her crowd of colleagues, it lands in the hands of one of the most reluctant to strip. In the spirit of a bride’s tossing her wedding bouquet, her pals all cry out “You’re next!”
Robert Jones’ very strange set offers two mountains of piled-up bureaus, cabinets and closets. Of all things! Or is the metaphor that the chests of drawers are a harbinger of the womens’ chests AND drawers we’ll soon be seeing?
Yes, drawers. Don’t expect full-frontal; waist-up-frontal is all you’ll get. Still, that’s more than you saw in the coy, even demure FULL MONTY. In that musical, the moment that the men shed their skivvies, the lights became blindingly bright so you couldn’t see a thing (or things).
Not so here. Breasts and buttocks are bared for all to see. So hats off to the middle-aged (or older) women who are courageous enough to show us more than many of us would care to display to them.
If the musical follows the play’s trajectory and doesn’t come to Broadway, could it be because it’s considered too English? Then how about Americanizing it the way Terrence McNally did with THE FULL MONTY?
Resetting it from Sheffield to Buffalo certainly helped, if only because those thick accents were nowhere to be heard. I daresay that MATILDA would have wound up higher than 42nd place on the long-run-musical list had it been Americanized (as its 1999 non-musical film was) – not that 1,554 performances is anything to at-choo at – if it didn’t make audiences wonder “WHAT did she just say?” every few minutes.
THE GIRLS is tons more fun with a better score and cast – and yet none of those is the show’s greatest asset; its enormous heart is. Sisterhood is indeed powerful here; we should only be so lucky to have friends as good as these. The sharp and sensitive dialogue also reminds us that you’re as young as you feel and that body shaming is in the myopic eye of the beholder.
So never mind the bland title which could easily be confused with that HBO series GIRLS. How perfect that this musical is playing the Phoenix Theatre, for all the women rise as high as one. Although CALENDAR GIRLS was an excellent film and play, it’s now found its best iteration.