If Stephen Harper really thinks theatre is elitist and highbrow and of no interest to ordinary folks who live in burbs like Richmond, he ought to go see Leading Ladies. This is a crowd-pleaser if there ever was one, with the best comic acting of the season.
A Harperesque character even features in this farce by American playwright Ken Ludwig, whose Lend Me a Tenor and Moon over Buffalo have been huge Broadway and London hits. Self-important Reverend Wooley (Chris Robson), engaged to be married to our drama-loving heroine, Meg (Luisa Jojic), finds professional theatre “rather troubling—the people in it are so loose and flamboyant.”
Flamboyant, indeed. English actors who have been touring cheesy scenes from Shakespeare for ten years, our heroes Jack (Allan Zinyk) and Leo (Peter Jorgenson) have hit rock-bottom, playing Moose lodges in small-town Pennsylvania. When they hear that a dying widow (Wendy Morrow Donaldson) is looking for her two heirs who went to England as children and haven’t been seen since, Leo convinces reluctant Jack that they can make their fortune by pretending to be the missing Max and Steve.
Things really turn flamboyant when the boys learn that Max and Steve were Maxine and Stephanie. They have to don their Shakespearean dresses (kudos to designer Jenifer Darbellay) and pretend to be girls. And of course the boys-dressed-as-girls fall for the real girls, Leo for Meg and Jack for her friend Audrey (Tara Travis). And a local old boy, the world’s worst doctor (William Samples), goes after the girl-who-is-really-a-boy, Jack. Some Like It Hot, anyone?
The sex in this sex farce, set in 1952, is sweet and corny but some of the comedy is ferocious. As the smooth-talking Tony Curtis character, the brains of the duo, marginally more convincing as a woman than his partner, musical theatre vet Jorgensen turns out to be a terrific comedian. Look for the moment when Leo and Jack fear they’ll be found out and thrown into a women’s prison.
Zinyk, known for his zaniness, outdoes himself here. His drag act is ridiculously funny, especially when he has to pretend to be deaf and dumb. At the top of the second act he does a double-take and bangs his head into the wall in a gag so hilarious that its momentum carries through almost to the end, where Ludwig overloads the script with a Shakespearean play-within-the-play that doesn’t quite work.
Director Johnna Wright keeps the gag-meter running high and the whole cast makes the comedy work, especially Jojic’s adorable Meg. I won’t give away the ending where she has to choose between the actor and the Harper character, except to say she makes the right choice.