Some jokes never get old. Others grew tiresome long ago. And yet there’s also schtick that’s relatively new and yet feels immediately old and tired.
Ken Ludwig’s farce “Leading Ladies” falls squarely in the latter camp, though there are audiences who disagree — those who find something inherently funny about men dressed as women and are willing to suspend disbelief against all odds that said men dressed as women go undetected in their charade by those they’re trying to dupe.
Such an audience laughed riotously opening night throughout Circle Theatre’s current production of the 2004 comedy by the prolific author of much more successful farces including “Lend Me a Tenor” and “Moon Over Buffalo.” Despite the overdrawn characters and performances directed by Tom Kaechele, as well as some of the downright offensive choices, such as a near-rape assault between a dirty old man and one of the men dressed as women, the audience laughed and laughed.
Set in the 1950s, “Leading Ladies” should have stayed there, despite having been written a half century later. It tells the story of two struggling British actors performing Shakespeare to unappreciative Moose Lodge audiences in York, Penn. They get wind of a dying dowager searching for her estranged British nieces to whom she’d like to bequeath her millions. So, they don the Cleopatra and Lady MacBeth costumes from their trunk and ingratiate themselves into the small community of Shrewsbury where the screwball melodrama unfolds.
Part “Some Like it Hot,” part “Twelfth Night,” full of mistaken identity, over-exaggerated cross dressing, caricature, and wrong romance, it plays like a British Christmas pantomime with predictable physical comedy played for knee-jerk laughs.
However, the cast is clearly talented, albeit misdirected here, and the production is visually lovely with gorgeous, colorful period costumes by Marcia Vankuiken and an impressive drawing room set by Don Wilson complete with dramatic balcony, staircase, an outdoor patio, and several sets of double doors.
Liz Brand’s pretty, sing-song Meg is appropriately mismatched with fiancé Duncan, the smarmy, greedy, naysaying minister we love to hate played with some sophisticated nuance by Russ Roozeboom. Spencer Tomlin and TJ Clark are wonderfully committed as the actors playing women, and work themselves into a frenzy trying to keep their roles and budding romances, ahem, straight. Emily Wetzel is a cute rollerskating Audrey, cartoonish in quality and likely more talented than she’s able to show here. Jason Stamp is an English bulldog of an old broad tromping around and splitting his shoes as Florence. Greg Rogers is a horrifyingly lascivious Doc who shouts all of his lines, and David Houseman has one of the best sight gags in the show within a show as Butch.
Though the situation and jokes are uninspired and the performances universally and unnecessarily over-the-top, the timing is on point and the show quickly paced. Despite a script that should be retired and overzealous direction, there’s plenty of talent here and a lot to be admired and enjoyed for the right audience.