Leading Ladies Resized 195.JPG
Tim McGeever as Butch, Brent Barrett as Leo in Leading Ladies, The Alley Theatre; PC: T. Charles Erickson

Leading Ladies, Houston Chronicle, 22 Oct, 2004

Review: Leading Ladies
Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

Forget love -- what the world needs now is laughs.

That's clearly the creed of playwright Ken Ludwig. He supplies plenty in his latest comedy, Leading Ladies, making a confident premiere at the Alley Theatre. Taking as his theme one of the theater's oldest and surest laugh-getters -- guys in dresses -- Ludwig adds some fresh twists and a few genuine surprises.

Ludwig's heroes (heroines?) are Leo and Jack, actors reduced to touring rural Pennsylvania (c. 1952) with their "excerpts from Shakespeare." With few prospects and less cash after a disastrous appearance at the Moose Lodge, they hear of a wealthy, dying woman seeking two long-lost relatives. Even after learning "Max" and "Steve" are nicknames for Maxine and Stephanie, Leo insists they go through with the scheme.

So Maxine and Stephanie make their entrance at rich old Florence's mansion, attired in the costumes of Cleopatra and Titania (fairy wings included). They meet Meg, Florence's stagestruck niece, with whom they ostensibly will split the $3 million inheritance. Meg is about to marry stuffy Parson Duncan, who wants the $3 million for himself and seeks to discredit the newly arrived heiresses.

Amid rehearsals for a performance of Twelfth Night planned as the entertainment for Meg's wedding party, the heroes juggle their female disguises with their true male personas, as Leo woos Meg and Jack romances family friend Audrey. Complications escalate.

As in Lend Me a Tenor and Moon Over the Buffalo, the farces on which his reputation is founded, Ludwig's modus operandi is more catch-as-catch-can than artful, and he settles for a few obvious lines the play could do without.

Yet once the main action and the masquerade are under way, Leading Ladies is consistently funny -- indeed, increasingly hilarious as it progresses. While all the nods to Some Like It Hot, Twelfth Night and even Charley's Aunt may smack of piggybacking, the play ultimately celebrates the shared spirit of mischief and fun that connects cross-dressing comedy from the Bard to Tootsie.

As first-time director, Ludwig keeps the proceedings slick and speedy, stocked with amusing sight gags and potent stage business. He gets the most from his polished cast of A-list Broadway regulars, all plainly relishing the romp.

Brent Barrett projects style and authority as Leo, the scheming, commanding half of the duo. As "Maxine," he's stately and imposing. It's Christopher Duva, however, who unleashes flat-out hysteria as fall-guy Jack, whose massive, dainty "Stephanie" veers out of control in bursts of inspired clowning -- classic stuff.

Erin Dilly is a revelation as the love interest Meg: an adorably spirited and starry-eyed heroine striving to break free from her bossy groom-to-be. Her joyous, kick-the-leg jig when excited is a deft touch of comic characterization.

Mark Jacoby's stodgy, self-righteous Duncan sputters and fumes amusingly -- essentially a comic variation on Jacoby's "Father" role in Ragtime. Dan Lauria exudes wry skepticism as Doc, a monumentally inept country quack. Lacey Kohl delights as exuberantly dizzy Audrey, a page right out of the early Goldie Hawn playbook. Tim McGeever is good-humoredly dense as her beau.

A particular treat is 50-year Broadway veteran Jane Connell as the imperishable old Florence. Last seen here as the accompanist Jeannette in the tour of The Full Monty, Connell seems to get funnier, and smaller, with each appearance. Tiny and as tenacious as a terrier, she scutters about with deranged glee or rises from her supposed "deathbed" to bark out her irascible put-downs.

Neil Patel has designed a suitably grand mansion setting, and Tony-winning costumer Judith Dolan's high-style togs for real and faux femmes are a hoot. Those are no Ladies, really -- but they're undeniably riotous company.

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