Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2009

Something is missing here, and my instinct is that the problem lies in the script, but from what I can gather Ken Ludwig’s Leading Ladies has been a big success in regional and community theatres around the world since it premiered at Houston’s Alley Theatre in 2004. Ludwig is an award-winning comic playwright with hits like Lend Me a Tenor (one of the funniest modern farces I’ve ever seen) and the book for Crazy for You, which you can catch in August at the Mac-Haydn, to his credit.

Logic tells me the Ludwig’s script couldn’t be the problem, but my experience at the Theater Barn last night makes me think otherwise. The first act verged on embarrassing, and the talents that several of the actors displayed in the much better, even hilarious, second act proved that the early difficulties couldn’t be laid at their feet, or in the lap of director Tony Capone.

This is a farce so I won’t attempt to give you a blow by blow account of the plot, which doesn’t matter anyway. It is 1958 and two mediocre British actors – Leo Clark (Joshua Forcum) and Jack Gable (Adam R. Deremer) – are touring their “Scenes from Shakespeare” through Pennsylvania Amish country with no success when they read in the paper that an elderly and wealthy local woman named Florence (Joan Coombs) is seeking her long-lost British relatives who will become heirs to her fortune, along with her orphaned niece, Meg (Amanda McCallum), with whom she makes her home. Meg is engaged to a pompous and miserly protestant clergyman, Duncan Wooley (Jonathan Sundham). Florence is under the care of a thoroughly inept Doctor (John Trainor), who has a son, Butch (Chris Ide), who is engaged to a roller-skating car hop named Audrey (Sheira Feuerstein).

Leo and Jack meet up with Audrey on the train, learn about Florence’s long-lost relatives and decide to impersonate them in order to get her money. The hitch is that they are women, so Leo becomes Maxine and Jack becomes the deaf mute (but not for long) Stephanie. Leo falls for Meg and Jack falls for Audrey and everyone decides to stage a production of Twelfth Night on the eve of Meg and Duncan’s wedding (huh?)

In the end, boys in drag get girls and boys not in drag go home empty-handed. Pull up your pantyhose fellas, the writings on the wall!

Before I start writing about the actors’ performances, I should note that the roles of Butch, Florence, and the Doctor are woefully underwritten. In fact there is no need for Butch to exist at all, so Ide never has a fighting chance. Trainor and Coombs, talented veteran local actors, do their level best to wring what laughs there are out of their one-dimensional roles. They are at their best in their respective moments of lust and seduction.

Sundham is way too young for the role of Duncan and never really finds his inner pompous ass. From his final brief appearance yellow-stockinged, I assume Duncan was intended by Ludwig to represent Twelfth Night’s Malvolio, and had that and other Twelfth Night parallels been made clear from the start I might have enjoyed the entire evening more.

I did ponder whether I would find Leading Ladies ten times funnier if I was seeing it in August after I had seen the two productions of Twelfth Night* on my schedule. Ludwig was obviously inspired by Shakespeare’s gender-bending comedy and I am sure there were subtle jokes I was missing, but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead this ain’t.

Ludwig intends this play to be all about the character of Meg, and it is easy to focus the eyes and heart on McCallum in this role. She is very pretty, winning, and natural on stage. She has to perform quite a bit of Shakespeare and proves up to that challenge as well (I see she has listed her genuine Shakespearean credentials in her program bio.)

Kate R. Mincer has designed some drop-dead gorgeous 1950’s ensembles for McCallum, and some very flattering ones for “Maxine and Stephanie” as well. Forcum and Deremer do a great job of finding their inner femme and each creates a believable female persona not just a gross caricature of femininity.

Forcum is a soft-featured man, which makes him easier to transform into Maxine than if he looked like one of those square-jawed soap opera hunks with chiseled cheek-bones, but it also removes some of the humor from the situation. The role of Leo was originated by Brent Barrett, who played a square-jawed hunk on MY soap opera years ago and still has the look. It’s funny in that Charley’s Aunt kind of way to see a guy like that in drag, but Forcum makes the best of his costumes, some of which are just hilarious and others of which are frankly flattering (although intentionally difficult to move in.)

Deremer is a slight fellow, and once he gets out of his initial drag ensemble (which comes complete with a Dolly Parton-sized pile of red hair and fairy wings!) he makes a really lovely woman. He just gets funnier and funnier in Act II, tearing about the stage in high heels and a crinoline, dodging confused male suitors left and right.

But the shining star of this production is Feuerstein, who hits every note of her character just right and is consistently an hilarious scene-stealer. Just how do you find an actress who can play dumb, do a dead-on Marlon Brando impersonation, AND roller-skate? There can’t be too many of them out there.

I understand that Ludwig was going for the Twelfth Night parallel in the scene where he has Meg declare her love not for Leo but for Maxine, but no respectable young woman in 1958 (and Meg is respectable enough to be engaged to the minister) would have dared to think such a thing, let alone announce it glibly in that time and place. It makes Meg’s whole character ring false. If Ludwig wanted the freedom to play with open homosexuality, York, Pennsylvania in 1958 is the LAST place he should have set Leading Ladies. And he can’t claim ignorance of the community and its social mores because he was born and raised there in the 1950’s!

Abe Phelps has, as usual, provided a fine farcical set with plenty of doors and a handy screen to hide behind – just like in School for Scandal, as Leo notes. The lighting by Stephen Vieira is unobtrusive – it sensibly gets out of the way and makes room for the farce.

Almost all the action in the play takes place in the living room of Florence’s swanky home, but Ludwig has set two scenes in that problematic first act elsewhere – on the stage in a Moose Lodge in Shrewsbury, PA, and on a commuter train. Phelps and Capone have chosen to stage both scenes “in one” – the theatrical term for in front of a closed curtain, a device usually reserved for when a large set behind the curtain has to be changed, rather than for when the playwright can’t think of a way to keep all the action on one set.

Act II really is funny and worth seeing, so if you enjoy a good farce just grin and bear it for the first half, fortify yourself with a Coke or a cookie at intermission, and return to your seat secure in the knowledge that the hard part is over and the real fun is about to begin.

Leading Ladies runs through July 12 at the Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. The show runs two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.

* The two productions of Twelfth Night that I will be reviewing, at Shakespeare & Company and Main Street Stage, are both opening on July 31. Walking the dog Theatre opens their production on August 6 and Hampshire Shakespeare Company has both a Main Stage production July 8-26 and a Young Company production July 31-August 2. Everyone else is doing A Midsummer Night's Dream this season.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009

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