BWW Reviews: Ludwig's Gender-Bending LEADING LADIES Opens Lipscomb Theatre's New Season

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Ken Ludwig may very well be the master farceur among contemporary working playwrights, with his light-hearted comedies among the favorites of theater companies and their audiences all over the world. Thanks to his skillful ability to craft comedies with a heart brimming over with reckless abandon, Ludwig is the go-to playwright for rollicking onstage fun.

Lipscomb University Theatre brings Nashville audiences the never-before-seen-locally Leading Ladies, a gender-bending take-off that pays homage to Shakespeare's own gender-bending Twelfth Night, for the opening production of its 2011-12 season. Directed by Robyn Berg and featuring a focused cast of Lipscomb's most capable theatre students, Leading Ladies is onstage at the Shamblin Theatre through October 2, taking audiences on a raucous, riotous and nostalgic trip to a small town in Pennsylvania, circa 1952.

With gorgeous costumes designed by June Kingsbury, and the outstanding lighting design of David Hardy (who also does the scenic design, which is quite good, even if lacking in the details that would push it over the top to match the hilarious hijinks of the script), Leading Ladies further boasts a tremendous musical score that perfectly captures the tone of the early '50s era of pseudo-sophistication among the provincial (and which helped mask the overly long scene transitions on opening night). From the earliest moments, Berg and her creative team make certain that audience members are transported back to this post-World War II era of changing tastes, developing social mores and evolving popular culture (exemplified by the transition from Dior's New-Look dresses to the slimmer feminine silhouette that followed).

Ludwig's finest works (Lend Me A Tenor, Crazy For You and Moon Over Buffalo) have all benefitted from his knowledge of these earlier eras and his attention to detail ensures that his plays are free of the anachronistic fluorishes that could so easily mar the proceedings. While Lend Me A Tenor very clearly shows Ludwig at his creative zenith - his subsequent comedies pale in comparison to that inspired script - he demonstrates his command of the language of the worlds in which he sets his plays in order to write characters who are believable despite the rather unbelievable situations in which they find themselves. Ludwig's love of the theater and of actors is apparent throughout his cleverly written script for Leading Ladies, which is filled with memorable gems that will gladden the heart of any would-be thespian.

In Leading Ladies, Ludwig introduces us to Leo Clark and Jack Gable (played by Sawyer Wallace and Caleb Pritchett) - a pair of once-successful Shakespearean actors now on the skids - during a performance at the Moose Lodge in Shrewsbury, Pennsylvania, where they must contend with a disinterested herd of Moose who would rather be pigging out at the buffet across the hall. When Leo and Jack read about a dying matriarch in nearby York, searching for her two long-lost heirs (who happen to be English), the two down-on-their-luck actors hatch a plot to impersonate them and get their greedy and needy hands on the woman's fortune.

Of course, initially it sounds like a fool-proof plan (note to self: scan the newspaper obituaries more closely in the future), but this is farce, so Ludwig has a few tricks up his sleeve, which you can rest assured will result in over-the-top comic mishaps and misfires. In short, Leo and Jack discover that the heirs are actually "heiresses" and so, armed with a suitcase full of enough theatrical costumes to outfit a small repertory company, the two men become Maxine and Stephanie and set their nefarious plot into motion.

Certainly, their hastily conceived plan hits a few snags along the way, not the least of which involves Leo/Maxine falling madly in love with Meg, the remaining heiress to the dying woman's fortune, and Jack/Stephanie's miraculous recovery from a lifetime of being unable to speak (and Jack's own romantic complications that involve half the cast).

To say that the plot is convoluted is a gross understatement, but since this is farce what else can you expect? There are plenty of doors to be slammed on Hardy's bi-level set, a spacious stage upon which zany chases are sure to ensue and enough requisite mistaken identities to keep the audience completely engaged, their laughter filling the theatre long past the final curtain.

Berg's cast of student actors bring Ludwig's script to life with their sharply focused portrayals and the director's deft hand can be detected throughout the various performances that never go over the top, although they oftentimes veer dangerously close to the edge. The playwright throws his own suitcase full of comic possibilities onto the stage - there's a wedding to stop, a production of Twelfth Night to mount - but Berg and company are up to their task, delivering a sparkling comedy (despite a few opening night miscues) in the process.

Rachel Hacker (as roller-skating Audrey, the big-hearted young woman who loves to use big, polysyllabic words), Josh Martin (as Meg's suitor, the town's strait-laced and stuffy minister), Grafton Thurman (as Doc, the town physician, who perhaps yearns for a career as a Catskills comic), Nick Hogan (as Butch, Audrey's rather clumsy boyfriend and Doc's hapless son) and Tiana Turner (as the piss-and-vinegar matriarch who simply will not die!) provide the three leading players with the necessary comic support that gives the production the requisite strong foundation.

But, clearly, the success of Leading Ladies is dependent upon the performances of its own leading "ladies" - in this case, the aforementioned Wallace and Pritchett and the lovely Stefani Paige (who plays Meg) - who truly enliven the proceedings with a perfect blend of comic timing, assured delivery and that hard-to-define necessity also known as stage presence. It's doubtful that Berg could have cast the three roles better than this talented triumvirate of promising actors.

Wallace's confidently bombastic Leo is sublimely entertaining, while Pritchett's reading of Jack is wonderfully nuanced, with both men perfectly capturing the actors' self-absorbed and egomaniacal personalities. Yet despite all the histrionics prescribed by the script, both Wallace and Pritchett are able to remain in firm control of their performances, never going too far. As a result, both Leo and Jack (and their alter-egos Maxine and Stephanie) remain believable and accessible -- despite the sheer theatricality of their performances.

Paige possesses the unerring ability to capture her character's personality and demeanor with a graceful ease that is impressive. Quite frankly, she's beautiful and there is something in her very physicality that allows her to genuinely become a character from an earlier time period; every time she takes the stage in Leading Ladies, Paige looks as if she just stepped out of the pages of a 1952 Vogue number. It's a trait that will undoubtedly serve her well in years to come, but what really sets Paige apart is her ability to say even the most inane, throwaway lines with conviction. 

Leading Ladies. By Ken Ludwig. Directed by Robyn Berg. Presented by Lipscomb University Department of Theatre. At The Shamblin Theatre, Nashville. Through October 2. For details, visit www.theater.lipscomb.edu or call (615) 966-7075.

 

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.


 
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