Reviewed by Mark Howell
Uncork the Champagne … take delight in the bubbles! Danny Weathers has done it again.
In “Leading Ladies,” the artistic director of Waterfront Playhouse has produced and directed the latest in a run of mega-hits that have made theater-going at the Waterfront in recent seasons a richly rewarding experience for audiences and for the theater itself.
Brandon Beach is tall, dark and handsome as cross-dresser number one. Elena Devers is winsome and lovely. Carolyn Cooper is adorable. Matthew Hollis Hulsey is swarthy and sweet as cross-dresser number two. David Black is entirely convincing as a holy man. Robin Deck as the matriarch commands the proceedings and gets some of the biggest laughs. Billy Cartledge and Justin Ahearn rollick in their roles.
The fibrillating key to high farce is that, as things unravel faster and faster and pile higher and higher, the only one who really knows what’s going on (including the actors) is Danny Weathers. It’s a British tradition and Ken Ludwig’s “Leading Ladies” is built around two English actors who try their hand as con men. Or con women. It’s really an extended Shakespeare joke and therefore limitless in its ambition.
The performance gets underway in front of a closed curtain, rare in a play with a set designed by the formidable Michael Boyer. It’s is an extended routine supposedly taking place on a train, hence the characters bobbing up and down — one on rolling skates yet — while the play’s parameters and possibilities are talked into place.
Things get rowdier once the two leading men arrive in Shrewsbury, PA and turn into Maxine and Stephanie; for some of the time, that is. Complexity upon complexity becomes stunning to watch with the two leading “ladies” caroming off reality while the real ladies and their attendant men try to keep things grounded.
But the clockwork is well oiled and the whole enterprise becomes a thing of beauty. Reality is suspended, logic upended, yet all is grand since the basic themes here are men and women, love and despair, happiness and death and not necessarily in that order. The stagecraft is a triumph of sustained buoyancy and effort, everything discussed and debated at breakneck speed and, most perversely of all, with utter believability.
As with much of Shakespeare, there’s a play within a play. Kudos to the cast (and the playwright) for conveying the ingenuity of this without a seam showing. Again, one has to wonder how the performers keep it all straight in their heads, but they certainly do and it’s with a charm that’s a joy to watch.
The costumes — pure high-end 1958 — are by Leigh Hooten with Ruth Calhoon and Carmen Rodriguez. Lighting is by David Bird. Danny Bootle is the fight coordinator. Music/sound effects are by Weathers and Dan Simpson. Trish Manley deftly stage manages the mayhem.
In the program notes, Matthew Hollis Hulsey thanks Danny Weathers for “the rare opportunity to be an actor as an actor acting like an actress acting.” Well said!
Waterfront’s productions over its most recent seasons have risen to a level of thematic complexity and high-speed delivery that’s as ambitious as anything we’ve seen on the stage here. Weathers is pushing the envelope and his management team and his casts are helping him to do so, even though they have other jobs in this challenging town in which to live.
Only the rigmarole at the end of “Leading Ladies,” which substitutes for curtain calls, is a bit too energetic for both audience and cast to sustain. But still it led to a sustained standing ovation on opening night.
“Leading Ladies” plays at Waterfront Playhouse at Mallory Square through January 11. All performances are at 8 p.m.
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Another difference in On The Edge productions is the time.
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Another difference in Main Stage productions is the time.