Playwright Ken Ludwig is a master of the contemporary farce, something that
anyone who has seen his much performed Lend Me A Tenor can attest to.
Another Ludwig gem is Leading Ladies, now getting first-rate treatment by Norris
Center, a gem of a professional theater hidden in beautiful Rolling Hills Estates,
down Palos Verdes way.

Director James W. Gruessing Jr. has assembled a stellar cast, headed by 5-time
Ovation Award winner David Engel as down-on-his-luck British Shakespearean
actor Leo Clark. Clark and his best friend/partner Jack Gable (Norman Wilson)
have been touring American Moose and Elks Lodges with their two-man “Best of
Shakespeare” show, which includes a hilarious swordfight during which the two
thespians manage to fit in nearly every Shakespearean one-liner in the book.
(When an offstage someone tosses Clark a skull mid duel, he catches it and
immediately goes into “To be or not to be” before resuming his swordplay.)

Trouble is, the show is a bust, and “Clark/Gable” (get it?) need to find a way to
put money into their non-existent bank accounts. A Shakespearean production
is being mounted in Los Angeles, starring Sir John Guilgud among others,
something which Clark thinks might be just up their alley. After all, “how many
Shakespearean actors do they have in America?  Six?”

An even better plan pops up when Leo and Jack notice a newspaper headline
which announces “Dying Woman Seeks Loved Ones; Huge Fortune At Stake.” It
turns out that a Pennsylvania millionairess named Florence Snyder, currently on
her deathbed, has lost touch with two of her three closest relatives, Max and
Steve, whom she has not seen since they left for England decades ago as
adolsecents. Should the two turn up, they’ll share her $3 million fortune with her
niece Meg. All they have to do is “wait for her to kick the bucket,” declares Leo,
and their futures are secure.

Leo and Jack soon learn more about Max and Steve from local dumb(ish)/
curvaceous blonde Audrey, a roller-skating waitress at the Tastee Bite.  She
informs them that Max, the older one, is in the theater, and Steve … Well, poor
Steve has been deaf and dumb since birth.  Inspiration hits Leo! They will show
up on Mrs. Snyder’s doorstep and claim to be Steve and Max!  Then comes the
hitch. Max turns out to be short for Maxine and Steve is short for Stephanie. The
two missing relatives are not Mrs. Snyder’s nephews, they’re her nieces!

No problem, says Leo.  They’ve got a suitcase full of costumes, including
women’s. They’re Shakespearean actors, aren’t they, and in Shakespeare’s
time, all women’s roles were played by men, weren’t they?  They’ll don these
gowns and show up on Mrs. Snyder’s doorstep and 2/3 of the fortune will be
theirs for the taking! When Jack protests, Leo snaps back, “For $2 million dollars,
the question is, ‘Which dress will you wear?’”

Meanwhile, Meg’s fiancé, the Reverend Duncan Wooley, is not at all happy
about the impending arrival of the missing nieces. He was, after all, planning on
using the entire $3 million for his Foundation.  (Duncan it seems is quite the
tightwad with money. There will be no engagement ring for Meg, no
honeymoon, no wedding gown even. They’ll be married wearing business suits.)
This “Maxine and Stephanie” have got to be imposters, Duncan decides, and he
will make it his mission to prove it.

Laughs, surprises, and drag ensue.

As Leo and Jack, David Engel and Norman Wilson prove themselves excellent
comic actors and physical comedians in their early scenes, but that’s nothing
compared to the outrageously hilarious work they do as Maxine and Stephanie.
Engel arrives gowned in gold lamé and a curly red wig while Wilson dons a
blonde pageboy and an ethereal white gown with little wings sewn on the
back.  It’s “Charley’s Aunt Meets The Fairy Princess” when these two arrive at
Mrs. Snyder’s to claim their fortune.

Leo is immediately smitten with Meg, and Jack has already fallen for Audrey.
(That happened as soon as he saw the words Tastee Bite sewn onto the bodice
of her waitress uniform, the second “e” kind of getting “lost in the middle.”) Meg
is not the only one who’s already taken. Audrey’s boyfriend Butch also has
marriage on his mind, though Doc Myers, his uncle, advises him, “Marry
(Stephanie) for cash.  I married for love. Biggest mistake I ever made.”

Will Leo win Meg’s heart from her stingy fiancé? Will Audrey choose Jack over
Butch? Will the Meg and Audrey ever figure out that Max and Leo aren’t really
two girls from England? Will the reverend prove that the two nieces are frauds?
Will the real Maxine and Stephanie show up wanting their inheritance?  Will Mrs.
Snyder die?  (The last question is a good one, since the old lady seems healthier
by the day since her beloved English relatives have shown up at her doorstep.)

Naturally, these questions will be answered in the course of Leading Ladies. The
joy of this Ken Ludwig treat is not in the answers themselves, but in the rollicking
road leading to them.

Engel is, as L.A. audiences know, our premier musical theater leading man. With
his Broadway and regional credits, his doubtless unprecedented 5 Ovations,
including back to back wins for two separate productions of Ludwig’s Crazy For
You, there’s no better song and dance man around.  Following his straight play
debut at the Norris a year ago (Leading Ladies is, incredibly, only Engel’s second
non-musical foray ever), Engel would seem primed for a whole second career as
a “legitimate” actor.  In the dual role of Leo and Maxine, Engel gives a truly
masterful (and “mistressful”) performance, and could give Lucille Ball a run for her
money in the physical comedy department.

Wilson, a young veteran of multiple CLO appearances, is every bit Engel’s equal
as Jack and Stephanie. The latter gets laughs just by wearing that blonde wig
and fairy wings, but wait till you see Wilson’s attempt at inventing a sign
language to prove that Stephanie is indeed “deaf and dumb,” or the way he
plops down like a man, unaware that his body language should be at least a
tad more feminine. With more roles/performances like this one, Wilson would
seem set to become one of our most popular comic actors.

Director Gruessing, who most definitely knows a thing or two about staging farce
and physical comedy, has assembled a splendid supporting cast, including the
lovely and winning Rebecca Morris as Meg, Laura J. Thatcher adorably
combining dim and bright as Audrey, and a very funny Michael Geniac as the
earnest but misnomered Butch.  (The latter gets laughs just by donning his Act 2
Shakespearean costume which consists of a florescent yellow Prince Valiant wig
with matching yellow leggings atop black Converse high-tops.)  Barry Pearl of
Grease: The Movie fame gets many laughs as the curmudgeonly Doc, and Todd
Nielsen and Sandra Kinder, a pair of favorites from the Colony Theatre’s 99-seat
days, are reunited here to fans’ delight.  Nielsen is perfectly prissy as the
tightfisted Reverend, who tells his fiancée “I gave the taxi driver a tip. You
might want to reimburse me.” Kinder is an excellent comic foil as grumpy-old-
lady Florence, and gets one of the play’s biggest laughs just by stubbornly
refusing to die.

Kami Seymour choreographed a lovely (though a bit superfluous) dance
sequence added to this production to showcase Engel’s (and the cast’s)
dancing talents. Gruessing has designed a lovely Pennsylvania living room,
though perhaps not particularly 50s in style, and Sean Meyer is responsible for the
fine lighting design.  Anthony Gagliardi created the excellent, and in the case of
the two thespians, very funny wigs.  Uncredited costumes are also very nice,
though again not quite 1952.

The Norris Center, for those not aware of its existence, is a beautiful 450 seat
theater which programs a three-play series every year. These thoroughly
professional (half of Leading Ladies’ cast are Equity) productions run two
weekends/six performances only, to packed houses. Leading Ladies will be
followed the first two weekends in May by Joe DiPietro’s Over The River And
Through The Woods. I won’t be missing that production, and StageSceneLA
readers are advised to mark their May calendars now. In the meantime, one
more weekend of Leading Ladies remains.  If you’re in the mood for laughs, don’t
miss it.

Norris Center for the Performing Arts, 27570 Crossfield Drive, Rolling Hills Estates

–Steven Stanley
January 25, 2008

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