Monday, June 9, 2014

All Roads Should Lead to Leading Ladies

Dusti Arab (Meg), Alex Johnston (Leo/Maxine), and Zachary Centers
By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker
Despite what our cousins across the pond seem to believe, men in drag are not necessarily funny. However, put a man in a dress at Theatre in the Grove and the result is inexplicably, inevitably hilarious. Very few mothers dream of seeing their only son cavorting around in high heels, poufy skirt, and tasteful blonde pageboy, but Director and proud mom Pruella Centers seems to delight in transforming son Zach into a winsome lass (at least on stage) in Theatre in the Grove’s current production of Ken Ludwig’s Leading Ladies.

Struggling Shakespearean actors Leo and Jack, after a catastrophic performance at a nearby Moose Lodge, end up broke on a train to York, PA. Leo has a plan – they will impersonate missing English heirs Max and Steve and inherit $2,000,000 from their recently deceased “Aunt” Florence. However, they learn from roller-skating waitress-in-training Audrey that Max and Steve are actually sisters Maxine and Stephanie. Undaunted, Leo persuades Jack to join him in raiding their costume box – so they arrive at Aunt Florence’s estate attired as Cleopatra and Titania (wings and all) to claim the loot. Rumors of Aunt Florence’s demise prove premature – despite having been declared dead (twice!) by an exceptionally incompetent physician, she lingers on quite hardily through two acts of genuinely funny farce.

Jeanine Stassens brings a crusty wit to the role of Aunt Florence, and the scene where she pretends to die just to mess with her physician gets one of the biggest laughs of the evening. Fred Sherrill’s blustering, greedy, lascivious portrayal of Doc makes him her perfect foil. Doc’s son Butch (Evan Tait) is even more witless (but much more likeable) than his father – Tait’s portrayal evokes the part of the hapless “Chris” on Family Guy. When forced to play in a Shakespeare scene, Tait’s character’s stage fright and rushed lines earn him several big laughs.

As Aunt Florence’s third niece, ingénue “Meg,” Dusti Arab makes the most of the relatively the thankless role of straight man. Arab is cute and spunky, and shows a lot of grit when standing up to her hypocritical fiancé, the minister Duncan (Dan Harry). Harry’s performance is superbly self-righteous – a classic male chauvinist in clerical clothing, played with admirable restraint. Jeananne Kelsey as the roller-skating waitress “Audrey” is a delight, drawing on her considerable comedic skills to create a thoroughly loveable ditz.

The cross-dressing duo (Alex Johnston as Leo/Maxine and Zachary Centers as (Jack/Stephanie) dominates the production from start to finish. Alex’s confident conman is Oliver Hardy to Zach’s timid Stan Laurel – and comparisons to funny men Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder would not be out of line. The pair’s comic mastery is not just a function of costume; in or out of drag these guys are astonishing comedians, and director Pruella Centers makes the most of their talent.

We cannot fail to mention the gorgeous set, brought to us by some fine carpenters and the fertile mind of multi-talented set designer Zachary Centers. The remarkable period costumes (1950’s and Elizabethan) are brought by (wait for it) Pruella and Zachary Centers.

The show runs for two more weekends. Do yourself a favor, trek out to Forest Grove, and catch this gem while you can.

Leading Ladies is playing at Theatre in the Grove, 2128 Pacific Avenue, Forest Grove through Sunday, June 22nd with Friday and Saturday performances at 7:30 pm and Sunday matinees at 2:30 pm.

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