Contributed photo Dann Wilhelm and Bryce Paul Mills, as two down-on-their-luck Shakespearian actors, cross swords – and cross-dress – in White Rock Players Club’s farce Leading Ladies, playing until July 1 at Coast Capital Playhouse.

REVIEW: White Rock’s Leading Ladies an on-target farce

Strong performances, direction score bona fide hit, writes Alex Browne

There are several elements contributing to the box-office success of White Rock Players’ Leading Ladies (currently packing them in at the Coast Capital Playhouse, where it runs only until July 1).

Ken Ludwig’s indisputably funny script is predicated on the correct assumption that audiences can’t get enough of comedies in which men, by force of circumstance, must don drag to impersonate women.

And community theatre veteran Helen Embury’s direction wisely recognizes that, in casting a strong ensemble who share your understanding of farce – and supporting them with well thought-out business, good pacing and a detail-conscious production – a local company can come up with a comedy every bit as entertaining as a professional show.

Set in early-‘50s Pennsylvania, Leading Ladies tells the tale of penniless British actors Leo (Bryce Paul Mills) and Jack (Dann Wilhelm), whose tired Shakespeare tribute is laying the proverbial egg on the lodge circuit.

Thanks to a chance meeting with small-town girl Audrey (Dianna Harvey) they see an opportunity to inherit millions by masquerading as Maxine and Stephanie, long-lost nieces of an elderly neighbour, the wealthy, but ailing, Florence Snider (Michelle Collier).

Largely faithful to a caricatured ‘50s sensibility, Leading Ladies is often reminiscent of Billy Wilder’s 1959 film Some Like It Hot. The similarity is particularly noticeable when Leo starts alternating his drag alter-ego with his own male identity in passionate pursuit of Florence’s genuine niece, stage-struck Meg (Samantha Silver).

Though Jack, predictably, professes outrage at this turn of events, he can’t claim immunity to temptation – he’s beginning to enjoy sisterly hugs with Audrey way too much.

Mills’ Leo is scarcely a subtle characterization, but his energetic and uninhibited broad-comedy style (his popular Dame roles have become one of the main selling points of White Rock pantomimes in recent years) does succeed in developing the necessary desperate momentum to drive the plot.

Wilhelm’s more nuanced approach makes the most of his finely honed sense of verbal and physical comedy – including some priceless reactions to a running gag in which Jack consistently trips on the staircase in high heels.

Muted (in more senses than one) in earlier scenes, Wilhelm’s performance builds to a second act tour-de-force in which hilarious attempts to play seductive vixen give way to headlong flight before a would-be seducer.

As much as it’s all about the leads’ drag act, this show also benefits greatly from the welcome presence of three gifted comediennes.

Silver, as Meg, is pitch-perfect in suggesting romantic confusion – including her growing attraction to Leo/Maxine – but also demonstrates a strong sense of physical comedy and an ability to take over the spotlight when, finally realizing the truth, Meg turns the tables on her cross-dressing suitor.

And Harvey offers a thoroughly assured, endearing performance as the prattling, bubble-headed Audrey – a winning take on stereotypical role that, in the hands of a lesser talent, might be simply annoying.

Collier – who just seems to get better with each venture into character comedy on our local stages – is a delight as the infirm, yet screechy and abrasive Florence, utilizing her sense of timing to maximum laugh-getting effect.

Comic dynamo Pat McDermott, as Florence’s inept, bawdy-humoured physician, Doc Meyers, takes full advantage of his patented schtick to get full mileage out of the not-so-good doctor’s reaction to apparent sexual overtures and his casual, ‘nobody’s perfect,’ approach to medicine.

Jamie Ives supplies an intelligent supporting characterization as Rev. Duncan Wooley, Meg’s singularly square and self-righteous fiancee, allowing the audience telling glimpses of the passive/aggressive scheming and self-centred miserliness behind the ‘dog collar’.

And Nicolas Dyke, in the relatively thankless role of the Meyer’s son, Butch – ostensibly Audrey’s fiancee – manages to wring some solid laughs from the character’s general awkwardness.

Kudos to fight co-ordinator Dylan Coulter for not having Mills and Wilhelm kill each other with some rather dangerous-looking swords during an opening Shakespeare pastiche, and also to dance co-ordinator Mary Boonstra, most notably for a tango sequence involving the entire company that is one of many highlights of a busy second act.

The show’s requisite main box set is well-achieved by head set designer and carpenter Dave Carroll, in spite of a oddly aggressive colour choice – perhaps lemon yellow was big news in 1952? – while Amara Anderson and Kevin Kriesz’s costumes provide a respectful nod to the period and lighting and sound are professionally-handled.

For tickets (time is running out), call 604-536-7535 or email to boxoffice@whiterockplayers.ca

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