You are not defined by where you start but by where you end up. And if you end up like Leo Clark and Jack Gable you’re going to need an entire Webster’s dictionary to define just exactly where you’ve ended up. Or how you’ve ended up. Or as whom! The Salem Players present to audiences all over the 21228 (and beyond!) zip-code their fall production of Ken Ludwig’s zany farce, Leading Ladies. Directed by Scott Graham, this hilarious production is the tried and true formula of funny. When down on their luck actors Leo Clark and Jack Gable hear that a sick old millionaire is leaving her family fortune to her two long lost relations— Max and Steve— they take up the game and attempt to cash in! A perfect plan right up until they discover that Max and Steve aren’t ‘Max and Steve’ but rather the old lady’s two long-lost nieces, Maxine and Stephanie! Director Scott Graham and his cast of incredible performers keeps this loopy loony bin rolling at full throttle for a hilarious evening of live entertainment.
The set is simple, though gracious and with a touch of class, to showcase Lady Snider’s vast fortunes. Scott Graham, who wears many hats in the production— as Director, Set Designer, and Costumer Coordinator (along with the members of the cast)— puts his vision to work and lets the comedy unravel itself with a cast of eight exceptionally energetic and talented actors. The production’s only fault is the lack of sound during the scene changes. While not noticeably longer than an ordinary scene change, they become apparent because there is no transitory music to distract the audience or shift them along. Sound Designer Tim Van Sant does a marvelous job of concocting other sounds— like the ‘holy bells ringtone’ featured on Rev. Duncan Wooley’s phone— for other moments in the production, which leads to the conclusion that a lack of sound during scenic transition was a small oversight.
The silent scene changes aside, which is worth mentioning that they happen at pace thanks to an efficient run crew of Stage Manager Fran Huber and assistant Berlyn Wells-Huber, the play moves along at a brisk clip, an essential speed of pacing in order to exact the nuances of Ken Ludwig’s farcical style from the script. Though the opening is a teeny bit slow, as the company gets a performance with a full house under their belt, that will no doubt smooth itself out as well. Another set of praises, by way of speed and efficiency, goes to the show’s dressers, Sara Toscano and Neat Lane. Without Toscano and Lane, the absurdly intense quick costume shifts that happen offstage would not be happening as efficiently as they do, and half of the piece’s humor would be unsalvageably sunk.
Every character has a quirk about them, and many find their niches early on. Mike Levin, making his Salem Players debut as the anally-retentive Rev. Duncan Woolsey, is a perfectly fidgety character actor. The Rev. Duncan character is the proverbial fly in the ointment, and just obnoxious enough to be humorous without falling into the category of utterly irritating beyond redemption. So intently does he pace across the floorboards when having his one-sided phone conversations with the unseen detective that you’re almost convinced he’ll wear a hole straight through the stage!
Equally amusing in their character niches are Louis Miles and Tim Evans as Butch and Doc Myers. While Miles plays the stereotypical ‘dumb-in-love-jock’ type, Evans is rollicking as the Doctor of Death and Doom. Constantly mistaking poor Florence Snider (played with exacting comic timing by Marge Ricci) for dead, which is part of the comedy’s exasperating humor, Evans lives up the role as a dirty old man type and really gets into the howling and finger wiggling of the Moose Lodge. When he’s chewing scenery in the background during the play-prep scene, he’s literally got his sword in his mouth and it’s hilarious. Keep an eye on both of these characters when they start to pursue the Stephanie character as it becomes a real comic showdown over who gets the ‘gal.’
Bubbly, bright, and vivacious vapid, Katie Frey takes up the role of Audrey with a humorous flare. The character, who is none too bright but brightly cheerful about her blissful ignorance, is the perfect vehicle for the two leading fellas’ scheme to get off the ground. Frey, who is animated both physically and facially, really takes the part seriously, giving it a refreshing life that feels honest in its simplicity. The way she interacts with Jack and Stephanie, especially for their ‘give us a hug’ moments, is too precious and hilarious to describe properly.
Dippy little Meg Snider, played by the incomparable Ashley Gerhardt, isn’t far above Audrey on the intelligence scale, though falls more into the category of modern damsel in mild distress. Engaged to the Reverend whilst desperately pining away for a career in the theatre and life on the stage, the Meg character is rather static but Gerhardt invents a dozen ways to keep her lively and active, many of which have to do with her facial expressions and over-the-top approach to the character’s vocal choices. The natural chemistry which Gerhardt brings to the stage is extraordinary and blends well with both Stephanie and Maxine, primarily the latter as that is the girl she spends the most time with throughout the production.
Leo (Jim Gerhardt) and Jack (Lenny Taube) up off their backs— and into dresses?!? This comedic duo is an absolutely scream together. Gerhardt and Taube share an unspoken chemistry between them that really urges scenes forward, pushes the show in the right direction at the right speed, and still gives plenty of breathing room to the comedic nuances of the show as they unfurl, shake loose, and explode. Their English accents are consistent, if a little muddled, but this plays into the characters’ wandering nature, they are actors after all. When they start having at one another during the second act, the way they poke and prod one another in and out of their alter egos, with Leo as Maxine and Jack as Stephanie, is hysterical.
Taube, who plays the stunning and suave Jack Gable, with all the refined finesse of a warm summer’s breeze, is a hoot in the role even before the drag gets underway. The way he dismissively and sarcastically bites at Leo during the train scene is a proper scream and will have the audiences chuckling heartily before the notion of dresses and heels ever come into play. Once Taube dons the dress, however, the comedy is elevated exponentially if for no other reason than his bombastically explosive facial expressions. Watching the faces he pulls, especially when other characters aren’t watching, is enough to make you bust a gut with laughter. There is something so natural and organic about the comedy he hones while playing the Stephanie character that it’s too good for words.
Gerhardt, who plays the charming and charismatic Leo Clark, masterfully transforms from Leo to Maxine in the blink of an eye and really plays up the comedy of his character prancing around in drag. With Gerhardt, it’s all about the voice, though his physicality as Maxine is quite convincing. Watching him farcically flounce about the stage, quick changing from Maxine to Leo is quite a comic calamity and keeps the audience howling (though not Moose-howling, that’s Tim Evans’ job) all throughout the evening. The way he engages with just about everyone, including poor, dippy Audrey, is something worth reveling in; the man understands how to connect to his fellow actors on stage whether he’s donning trousers or a fabulous Cleopatra gown.
It’s a laugh. It’s a scream. You’ll be falling out of your seat with laughter as the night goes on and you won’t want to miss Leading Ladies at The Salem Players because it’s the dose of humor that the doctor ordered to keep away the blues this fall.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 10 minutes with one intermission
Leading Ladies plays through November 19, 2017 at The Salem Players— Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church at 905 Frederick Road in Catonsville, MD. For tickets call (410) 747-0720 or purchase them online.