Heel thyself: Dominick Varney and Marc Goldhaber as Leading Ladies, now at Cortland Repertory.
Ludwig’s secret is simple. As with previous hits like Lend Me a Tenor (1989), the libretto for Crazy for You (1992) and Moon Over Buffalo (1995), he sets everything in the past. Leading Ladies
(2005) takes place in York, Pa., during the somnolent spring of 1958.
General Eisenhower is still president, and all’s well with the world.
Ludwig is what might be called a derivative playwright, drawing most from George S. Kaufman (The Man Who Came to Dinner) and Georges Feydeau (A Flea in Her Ear). But he casts his net wider for Leading Ladies. He admits in dialogue to a debt to Brandon Thomas (Charley’s Aunt) and William Shakespeare (Twelfth Night), but there are also steals from Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot) and Tom Stoppard (not to worry). In bantering all these titles around one has to admit that Ludwig’s Leading Ladies
is known only to assiduous theater buffs. That’s because it never
opened in New York City and is not first-rate Ludwig, suffering from a
lugubrious first act.
That’s where reassurance comes back in.
Kerby Thompson, artistic honcho at CRT, likes to produce one farce each
summer and puts the company’s name on the line in delivering a good
time. His work pays off in the second act.
Two hapless British thespians, the
grandiloquent Leo Clark (Marc Goldhaber) and the usually put-upon Jack
Gable (Dominick Varney), have been reduced to doing a show called Scenes from Shakespeare
in places like the Moose Hall of rural Pennsylvania, where they are
booed off the stage. Resourceful and conniving, they could be stand-ins
for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (so much for Stoppard). They learn
that a fabulously wealthy, fatally ill woman in nearby York, Florence
Snider (Robbeye Lewis), is seeking two long-lost relatives and heirs
from England for a last embrace before the end. Could those relatives
be Max and Steve? No, drat, they are Maxine and Stephanie, which means
the boys will have to arrive in drag.
At the Snider mansion we learn that Florence may not be as near death as announced, a possible nod to Ben Jonson’s Volpone.
She’s well enough to want to see how things play out. Here we also meet
Florence’s stage-struck, brunette niece Meg (Morgan Reis), who is
unaccountably engaged to sourpuss, penny-pinching Rev. Duncan Wooley
(Adam Belvo). Duncan’s attraction, we learn, is somewhat less than
fully romantic, as he has his eyes on Florence’s fortune, which would
nicely fund his, um, charity.
Present also in the mansion is bosomy
blonde Audrey (Erin Balsar), who’s usually seen on roller skates.
Despite being a studious autodidact, Audrey appears to be attracted to
the dim-but-strong Butch Myers (Kyles Hines), son of Florence’s
less-than-competent doctor (Mark Bader). That means both available
ladies are blessed with disposable boyfriends.
Given that part of the premise is that
Leo and Jack are down on their luck, their theatrical trunk turns out
to be crammed with riches. CRT costume designer Wendi Zea is the actual
provider, of course, outfitting the boys with successive Renaissance
and pre-Raphaelite costumes with gold and spangles and veils, always
enough frou-frou to cover hairy chests and forearms. Not one of these
would fool the crowd at Rain, but that’s dramatic convention as old as
Most of the comedy, which increases with
the quickening pace of the second act, is physical or situational, like
a duel and a staged version of Shakespeare in which everyone takes a
role, including Butch. Gag lines are only so-so. An angry Stephanie
(Jack in drag) shouts, “They’ll put us in women’s prison with female
truck drivers with buckteeth and tattoos. (Two-beat pause). Maybe that
wouldn’t be so bad.” Ludwig ups the ante when both Leo and Jack have to
break out of drag to establish new relations with the girls in their
Returning director Tony Capone, who guided last summer’s Ten Little Indians,
drives a furious pace with a tight rein. Of his leads Marc Goldhaber
(Leo/Maxine) had previously appeared as a singer for CRT’s 2002
production of My Way: The Music of Frank Sinatra and showed no
previous inclination for drag. Suave and confident, however, he shows
us how to bend the pliable Jack/Stephanie. In those roles CRT veteran
Dominick Varney is the more antic and balletic; he’s at his funniest
when he’s not supposed to speak.
Given that Meg is supposed to be
gullible and earnest, vivacious Morgan Reis gets the max from her.
Similarly, Adam Belvo’s Duncan, a kind of Mayberry Tartuffe, surprises
everyone when he dons tights to get into the Shakespeare act. Erin
Balser’s cutie-pie Audrey also breaks into comedy when she reads the
Bard’s lines, sounding like longshoreman Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront.
Ken Ludwig’s Leading Ladies might
never have made Broadway or even off-Broadway, but Cortland Repertory’s
production brings the second act up to the fun levels of Lend Me a Tenor or Moon Over Buffalo.
This production runs through Saturday, June 28. See Times Table for information.