Leading Ladies by Ken Ludwig directed by Richard Israel ICT, Long Beach through July 1
The more I see Ken Ludwig (Lend Me a Tenor, Moon Over Buffalo, now Leading Ladies), the more I realize that he is one of a dying breed of American farceurs. How many presently exist? In the UK, yes, there are many. Farce is their specialty, but not in the US. So, that given, Leading Ladies is a uniquely special ode to the theatre, to Shakespeare and to that band of traveling actors who make little money but devote their lives to entertain us, and to comedy put forth at a breakneck pace. Thanks to Ken Ludwig and his Leading Ladies our lives are that much brighter. Now in a splendid production at ICT, Long Beach, Richard Israel exhilaratingly guides a fiercely talented cast through July 1.
Of course, with so much silliness at play, it does seem a tad forced at times, but that is a given, as is the next-to-no plot, which involves two actors dressing as women, long lost nieces of a wealthy dowager, in order to collect an inheritance. The woman, whom they presume dead, hasn't seen them since they were children, so they feel they can carry it all off without a hitch. But, of course, everything that could go wrong does, like two other nieces showing up, so who are the real frauds? If an ensemble can make all the silliness fresh and spontaneous, their work is accomplished, and this cast is assuredly up to it. They include: David Engel and John J. Joseph (pictured above) as Leo/Maxene and Jack/Stephanie, respectively: crazed to the max, Jamison Lingle deliciously feisty as Meg, Lyndsi LaRose, a big curvaceous and delightfully droll Audrey, Katherine McKalip, forceful and cranky as Florence, the old aunt who refuses to lie down and die, Don Oscar Smith as the mischievously ready Doc, Corey Craig as goofy but likeable Butch and Daniel Lench appropriately irritating as the greedy , overly self-righteous minister Duncan. Director Richard Israel does a masterful job with putting all of them through their paces. A special nod to David Engel, who couldn't look less than pretty if he tried, making a truly handsome Maxene, as well as Leo. Joseph is at odds, making a truly homely - or as the Irish might say, plain - but grand-spankingly hilarious Stephanie. Engel and Joseph have great chemistry and comedically play off each other to the max.
Staci Walters has designed a functional drawing room set with corridors leading out that can be seen by the naked eye, Kim DeShazo some celorful apparel especially for Engel, and choreographer John Todd has added some quick and fun steps with couples lightly sashaying around the settee in the party scene.
Ludwig loves to have his actors enact Shakespeare within his plays. It fits so consistently with the quick pace, theatricality and over-the-top flambuoyant performances that make farce sparkle. And when it's done improperly, it adds even more fuel to the comic combustion. A sparkling production this is, indeed!