Saturday, June 5, 2010

Leading Ladies At Sunset

An Impressively Entertaining Evening in Elm Grove

By Russ Bickerstaff
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(L to R) Chelsey Peterson, Matthew J. Patten and Jacqueline Gosz

As contemporary farces go, Ken Ludwig’s Leading Ladies is pretty nondescript. Two down-on-their luck actors find themselves impersonating long, lost female relatives of a dying woman in order to obtain an inheritance. In the process of doing so, they begin to fall for a couple of girls and things begin to get a bit complicated. With passages and overall style loving lifted directly from Shakespeare, the script never feels stiflingly unfunny or offensively bad. It’s a solid, competent comedy. That the Sunset Playhouse production is funny at all shows a great deal of accomplishment on the part of Mark Salentine and a decent cast. That the production is also thoroughly engrossing and entertaining enough to be well worth the trip to Elm Grove shows a remarkable level of talent on the part of nearly everyone involved.

Spencer Mather plays Leo Clark—a charming gentleman who gets the idea to impersonate the women from an ad in a newspaper on a train. There are some relatively funny moments with Mather as Clark, but Mather is far more compelling as the emotional center of the play . . . we see the character’s love of acting soon met by his burgeoning love for a woman about to be married to another man. Mather makes the dramatic end of the play work remarkably well. Gable, his reluctant partner in the con, is played by Matthew J. Patten. The obvious comedy of a towering man in a dress is only the surface of Patten’s performance. Over the years, Patten comic instincts have grown a great deal and it’s a lot of fun to watch him in both the physical and verbal ends of the comedy here. The rapport between Patten and Mather is fun, but the two get so completely immersed in the story that the integrity of the ensemble is much more compelling.

Director Mark Salentine has managed to find some really fun ways to amplify the physical end of the comedy. The juxtaposition of towering man-in-drag Patten with the short, robust form of a particularly funny Gene Schuldt as an amorous Doctor is a great deal of fun. One of the more interesting physical challenges faced by any of the cast members here has to be Chelsey Peterson’s performance as Gable’s love interest Audrey. She’s not constantly onstage prior to intermission, but the play requires her to spend that entire stretch of the play on roller skates. It’s subtle, but there’s a kind of comic grace as she glides around onstage amidst the gradually mounting chaos. Blissfully unaware of the complexities of the plot, the character slides around on an evidently frictionless surface, casually drifting in and out of scenes. Involved in a play-within-the play, Peterson also makes the most of an opportunity to perform in character as an actress doing sort of an impression of a young Marlon Brando, as I recall. It's a rare opportunity for any actress and Peterson does a good job with it.

Jacqueline Gosz plays half the emotional center of the play opposite Spencer Mather as Clark’s love interest Meg. At times, Gosz is an irresistible vortex of charming sweetness—light just sort of falls into her. That this never feels the slightest bit nauseating or annoying is proof that Gosz is a really good actress. That she’s also able to provide a bit of intricate subtlety to some of her performance and gracefully deliver a few complex bits of physical comedy is quite impressive. A quick solo tumble around on a couch generated the first of a several smatterings of spontaneous applause opening night.

Not everything is completely flawless here, but Director Mark Salentine works really well with the rhythm of the piece and at those moments where the cast and audience are perfectly in synch with both the drama and the comedy of the show make for some alarmingly entertaining moments for a light, cheesy late Spring farce in Elm Grove.

The Sunset Playhouse’s production of Leading Ladies runs through June 26th in Elm Grove.

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