The silly days of midsummer are here – time for mindless blockbuster movies, mindless frothy musicals, mindless soft-rocking beach music, and mindless door-slamming farces. Nobody’s going against that grain at Duke Family Performance Hall on the Davidson College campus. Presenting the Metrolina premiere of Ken Ludwig’s Leading Ladies, Davidson Community Players (DCP) has surrendered to midsummer madness with wholehearted theatrical flair. Penned by the farceur who brought us Lend Me a Tenor (1989) and Moon Over Buffalo (1995), not to mention the book for Crazy for You (1992), Leading Ladies returns us with fresh twists to Ludwig’s oft-explored comfort zone, the world of showbiz. This time our protagonists are two down-and-nearly-out Shakespearean actors, Leo Clark and – wait for it – Jack Gable. Reduced to butchering the Bard at the Shrewsbury Moose Lodge in Pennsylvania, and penniless because Leo has so angrily berated the uncouth Moose that they weren’t paid for their work, the chums are sitting at the railway station, not knowing where to go or what to do next.
Time to buckle your seatbelts and begin suspending your disbelief. On one of the benches, Leo finds a newspaper whose front-page headline offers an opportunity for redemption: there is an ongoing search for Max and Steve, two heirs to the fortune of a wealthy woman on her deathbed. Would you believe that the dying woman, famously scanning the globe for her lost beneficiaries, lives practically around the corner in the richest mansion in York, Pennsylvania? Leo tries to convince Jack that they could impersonate the brothers and walk away with $1 million apiece, quite a princely sum back in 1958 when this is happening. Jack counters, reasonably enough, that they know nothing about Max or Steve, so their fraud will be discovered before you can say “10 years of hard labor.” Would you believe that a pretty young woman instantly enters who provides every scrap of information about Max and Steve that our aspiring swindlers could possibly need? On cue, blond Audrey, an intimate of the dying dowager and a prodigious blabbermouth, arrives – on roller skates! As Leo and Jack embark on their masquerade, the bombshell drops a bombshell: Max and Steve are actually Maxine and Stephanie, nieces and not nephews. Would you believe that two actresses have recently quit our heroes’ company, leaving their costumes behind them, so the prime tools for impersonating Maxine and Stephanie are neatly folded right there in Leo and Jack’s suitcases?
Of course you will, Ludwig calculates, if it means watching two grown men dressing up outrageously as Titania (complete with fairy wings) and Cleopatra, struggling in high heels all night long, with occasional interludes of wooing two knockout women. Looping around our heroes’ escapade, we find out in the opening scene that the third niece who stands to inherit her fair share of Aunt Florence’s millions, Meg, has been thwarted in her attempt to see that Moose Lodge fiasco by her starchy, small-minded fiancé, Pastor Duncan Wooley. She was especially interested in seeing the Shrewsbury Shakespeare because she had seen the principals before – performing in Philadelphia, where she was particularly smitten with Leo. But even outside of Shakespeare, the course of true love never doth run smooth. After Leo has fallen for Meg, and Jack continues to drool over Audrey, there are heaps of complications to hurdle. Aside from Meg’s meek loyalty to Duncan, Audrey seems destined for wedlock with Butch, the incompetent family physician’s dopey son, and both would-be wooers are trapped inside their women’s wear, hamstrung by their get-rich scheme. On top of all that, there’s one kinky gender-bending twist that none of our protagonists have foreseen, let alone the audience.
Vito Abate directs the show with gusto, lavishing plenty of broad physical comedy in our path, much of it reprised in a delightful megamix that accompanies the final bows. Such ‘50s hors d’oeuvres as “A Guy Is a Guy,” “All Shook Up,” and “Stupid Cupid” figure prominently in sound designer John Hartness’ playlist. Chris Timmons designs a two-story set that fills the mammoth Duke Family stage with wall-to-wall elegance, no fewer than two exit points on each floor, with an upstage set of patio French doors peeping out onto a tropical Pennsylvania rainforest. Yet the true luxury Abate has to work with here is his cast, yet another outcropping of the superabundance of professional-grade talent that performs in community theatre productions in and around Charlotte. As Jack, Matt Merrell surpasses his triumph in last summer’s Rumors, mincing and mugging to admirable effect, largely because the real Stephanie was born deaf and dumb. We get maximum impact from those disabilities at the end of Act 1 in the best tradition of George S. Kaufman. Bill Reilly makes a fine DCP debut as Leo, the shrewd Bing Crosby of this traveling duo – or the Tony Curtis, if you’re catching the parallels between Leading Ladies and Some Like It Hot. Frances Bendert’s sexiness is actually muted somewhat as Meg, given a pert Mary Richards-like wig to look like a proper wife for a parson. But the charms of that body will not be denied, nearly bursting out of one of Lena Olsen’s more audacious costume designs. Similarly, Meg’s predilection for the theatre pulls her out of Duncan’s gravitational field and into Leo’s orbit. Not all of it is clearly audible, but Bendert’s nuanced performance lends credence to the playwright’s contention that this farce is really about Meg.
Even the least of the supporting players is very good. Standouts are Curtis Kriner as the hypocritical Duncan and Jim Esposito as the incompetent Doc. Kriner is such a cunning and sanctimonious slimeball in his mercenary pursuit of Meg’s millions that you begin to catch echoes of The Foreigner or even Tartuffe when this cleric is on the prowl. We gradually see that Duncan only wants Meg for his money, which makes him half the man that Leo is, wanting the money and loving Meg too. Doc, as it turns out, is also the emcee at the Moose Lodge, so his ineptitude extends far beyond merely pronouncing Florence dead while the biddy still has plenty of life left. Esposito also bumbles deliciously into the crossfire between Duncan and Leo as the actor tries to induce the Pastor to switch allegiances and woo Stephanie for her money. Another saucy echo of Molière? Perhaps. On close examination, many of the pieces of Leading Ladies seem vaguely borrowed or clumsily shaped. But once they’re expertly assembled, first by Ludwig and then by the superb DCP team, the mechanism runs like clockwork, irresistibly funny.
Leading Ladies continues through Sunday, July 28. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.