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Endearing characters lead in Gulfshore Playhouse's comedic 'Leading Ladies'

By Shelby Reynolds, Naples Daily News

It's hard to pick a favorite in Ken Ludwig's "Leading Ladies."

There's Jack (Zach Martens), the dorky hopeless romantic who's somehow willing to follow along with any of his friend's ridiculous plans; Audrey (Hanley Smith), the rollerskating ditsy blonde with a surprisingly impressive vocabulary; and Florence (Mary Stout) who may not have had many lines, but stole the show in the end with her wit and batty charm.

Gulfshore Playhouse performed each one expertly.

With quick costume changes, hidden jokes and several plot twists along the way, "Leading Ladies" was fun chaos. It paced well and kept the audience chuckling throughout.

Directed by Darren Katz, the play opened last week, with matinee and evening performances scheduled through Dec. 10.

Set in 1958, "Leading Ladies" is the comedy of two Shakespearean actors wallowing in thespian poverty. Jack, played by Zach Martens, a Gulfshore Playhouse veteran of "Merchant of Venice," is the goofy, loyal pal to Leo, played by William Connell, who's appeared in other Ludwig comedies, including "Lend Me a Tenor" and "Moon Over Buffalo."

Jack is ready to retire his tights and chainmail to find a wife and settle down, while Leo is eager to earn the big bucks. So eager, in fact, he's willing to pretend to be the nephew of a rich, dying woman who's searching for Max and Steve, her late sister's long lost children who sailed to England and were never heard from again.

Enter Audrey, who really seemed to master the roller blades without splaying out onto the stage like the rest of us would have. She unknowingly breaks the news that Max and Steve are actually Maxine and Stephanie — nieces, not nephews.

Undeterred, Leo convinces Jack to join him as they reinvent themselves as women and they arrive in York, Pennsylvania, to find a whole cast of characters, including Meg (Erin Davie), the third cousin who's soon to be married to minister Duncan (Phillip Taratula).

And in true Ken Ludwig fashion, chaos ensues.

There's blossoming romances. Leo, acting as Maxine, ends up falling for Meg, and they share a charming chemistry on stage, like when they “meet” as Leo and Meg for the first time. There's a silence on the stage that lingers for a few quiet moments. It’s a striking contrast from the ridiculousness and ongoing chaos that happens throughout the show.

There's no shortage of comedy, either. Doc (Mike Lawler) and his son Butch (Alex Michael Albrecht) had clever banter on stage. Butch, especially, when he faces his stage freight and helps the crew put on a production of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night."

Costume designer Lauren Gaston clearly had fun with the 1950s-era dress, with billowy trousers for Maxine, poodle skirts for Audrey and and polka dot dresses and pin-up hair for Meg. The Shakespearean outfits were fun, too, with the large, puffy white collars and feather caps.

On set, Kristen Martino created living room scene awashed with yellowish green floral wallpaper and a staircase that Meg hilariously scaled up with an armful of shopping bags. We've all been there.

The characters are the real stars of the show in "Leading Ladies." Connell kept up a convincing British accent, and he easily slipped back and worth between the glamorous Maxine and charming Leo.

Martens didn't hold the British accent quite as well, but he delivered some of the funniest lines, including "Old people do that, they linger out of spite."

Davie portrays Meg as a naive, small-town girl, but she has an endearing kindness and feisty nature that appears at the end of the play when Leo and Jack's gig is finally up.

Audrey was the clear audience favorite. She had the audience laughing with nearly every line, especially when she takes a huge bite of apple as she delivers a Shakespearean line — spit flying and all.

"Leading Ladies" was full of hilarious, jaw-dropping surprises, with characters that delivered them so convincingly.

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