A long-standing ploy in the bag of tricks used by the comic playwright is to exploit greed and the lengths to which a man will go in order to obtain wealth. These lengths are far, indeed, in Ken Ludwig's grand-scale comedy about two down-and-out actors who scheme to get millions by each posing as someone he is not. And this leads us directly to a second ploy often used in comedy: mistaken identity. In the case of Ludwig's Leading Ladies, now showing at NCSU's University Theatre, a cool million each is the impetus behind these two taking on the roles of relatives of a wealthy woman in York, PA.
Such is the situation facing Leo Clark and Jack Gable, a pair of Englishmen trying to make a name for themselves in theatre. It is 1957. The two have been struggling across America, attempting to earn a living by touring a show they have written, Scenes from Shakespeare. But the hard truth is they aren't very good at it, and the show itself is merely a string of the most famous lines from the Shakespearean canon, with no rhyme nor reason to them. So, when we meet Leo (Alex Smith) and Jack (Steffen Schilstra), they have hit rock bottom and are stranded on a train in Shrewsbury, PA with no money and, apparently, no prospects. That is, until Leo hits upon a mad scheme to net them all the money they would ever need.
Jack has read a newspaper item about a wealthy woman in nearby York, who has spread the word across the media that she wants to be reunited with two children her family lost when they were very young. Their mother took them off to England at a tender age, and they have not been seen in the colonies since. Their aunt, Mrs. Florence Snyder (Mia Self), is dying, and wants to see them before her time comes. In order to entice them to come home, she is offering a cool million each to her two young prodigals, Max and Steve.
Leo tries desperately to convince Jack that they can do this; they're Londoners, after all, and Mrs. Snyder hasn't seen the children in many years. They're actors, aren't they, and they should be able to handle this ruse easily. It wouldn't be for very long; the old woman is on her death bed. And they would walk away with a couple of million between them. What could go wrong?
Everything. Starting with the fact that Max and Steve are really Maxine and Stephanie; they're women. Secondly, Steve is a deaf mute; has been since birth.
Over Jack's monstrous misgivings, the two assume their respective roles and go to meet their new relatives: their cousin, Flo's daughter, Margaret, whom everyone calls Meg (Natalie Sherwood); her fiancé, Duncan (Patrick Seebold), who already has designs of his own on the family fortune; Flo's attending physician, Doc (Peter Lalush), and his son, Butch (Matthew Tucker), a big lug who is engaged to a friend of the family, Audrey (Mackie Raymond).
Director John C. McIlwee pulls double duty for this production, also taking on costume and hair design. All the women — and that includes Maxine and Stephanie — wear wigs, and the dresses that are worn by Leo and Jack are, shall we say, over the top; the very height of 1950s fashion. The set, a grand two-story affair on the main stage at Titmus Theatre, befits the mansion of a wealthy lady of York society, with a grand entry, a beautiful garden off the patio, and a spacious living room, complete with giant chandeliers and parquet floors. It's another one of those gorgeous sets built by University Theatre, the kind that makes us want to move in and live there.
The students who have taken on the roles in this work proved to be multitalented. There is a great deal of dancing to be done at a garden party held for Meg and Duncan's impending nuptials. And Meg and Leo decide to put on a play for the party, scenes from Meg's favorite Shakespearean comedy, Twelfth Night. Everyone in the play gets a role, so there must also have been some fine reading of the Twelfth Night by all. Natalie Sherwood as Meg handled her Shakespeare magnificently.
The crux of this work is, of course, the antics of Leo and Jack as they attempt to carry off this monumental ruse. There is much dressing and redressing, as Leo and Jack become Max and Steve, and vice versa. As is true in Twelfth Night, there is wooing to be done; Jack, in his role as Stephanie, must fight off the attentions of both Duncan and Doc. Jack finds he has had more than he can take when the men who are smitten by Stephanie's beauty want to kiss her.
There are far more shenanigans to be had before Leading Ladies is over, and before the night is through, the cops will be called and shots will be fired. Fear not; it's all in good fun and, befitting of comedy, it's all straightened out before the final curtain. To know how this happens, you will have to see the madcap adventure and find out.
It was a rollicking good show, and it was apparent that the cast was having just as much fun as the audience. If you would like to fight off winter's cold with some hot theatre, Leading Ladies is your best bet.
Leading Ladies continues through Sunday, February 21. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.