When done right, men who dress as women in an attempt to hoodwink a situation is one of theater’s most hilarious devices. Why is it so funny? Who cares? In Ken Ludwig’s “Leading Ladies,” an awkward beginning and an orchestrated premise quickly succumb to hilarity. In this production, the drag is done right.
Leo Clark and Jack Gable are Shakespearean actors performing on the Moose Club circuit in rural Pennsylvania. They read in the paper that Florence, a local heiress, is searching for her missing nieces Stephanie and Maxine, to whom she wishes to leave her fortune. The third future inheritor is her niece Meg, a theatre lover who is engaged to the pious preacher Duncan.
With a suitcase full of costumes and nothing but time on their hands, Clark and Gable decide to pose as the missing nieces, wait out the death of the heiress, and abscond with the cash. Ah, but love waits in the wings, the benefactor regains her health, and the fake females find themselves in a long-term impersonation situation.
A farce is only successful if the actors live into their cartoonish roles. This means the timing has to be impeccable, the slapstick effective, and the costuming needs to at least elicit giggles, if not roars. Director Vito Abate and his team succeed on all fronts.
Davidson Community Players’ Executive Director Matthew Merrell plays Gable, whose adamant reluctance to portray Stephanie stokes the play with constant comic spectacle. He is ridiculous in high heels, he can’t keep his stuffed bra even, and his array of costumes includes a winged gown. He looks like a deranged princess.
Gable’s partner in crime is played by the debonair Bill Reilly, who embraces his character Maxine with the zest of an actor who finally has an audience. Never underestimate the ability of a man in a Cleopatra costume to rock the house.
Frances Bendert is a dynamo as Meg. Her costuming, designed by Lena Olsen, is the essence of 1958, from an impossibly shiny brunette flip, to her pillbox hats, to her eye grabbing sexy dresses. She is perky and seductive and the perfect foil to her sniveling, mean spirited, fiancé, played by Curtis Kriner. When she is presented with an opportunity to perform “Twelfth Night,” she gives the audience reason to believe she could make a heck of a Viola.
Also of note is Jim Esposito as the blustery, incompetent Doc Myers. His depiction of Sir Toby Belch, while wearing gray pantaloons, tights and a red felt hat is inexplicably amusing. Just what Shakespeare would have wanted.
The set serves its purpose, with a long and winding staircase that encourages pratfalls and mishaps on heels. There are enough doors to slam, and enough hiding places for quick costume changes. Sound designer John Hartness covers lengthy set changes with ballads from “Stupid Cupid” to “I Could Have Danced All Night.”
Lovers of Shakespeare will take delight in the random citations from the Bard’s great encyclopedia of works. Anyone with a humerus will enjoy the silliness the Players bring to this stage.
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