Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

Ken Ludwig's Leading Ladies

The Adobe Theater
Review by Carla Cafolla

Also see Dean's review of Head over Heels

Tom Hudgens and Tim Crofton
Photo by Dan Ware
According to people who know such things, no less than seven of Shakespeare's plays feature cross-dressing as a plot. When we further learn playwright Ken Ludwig was inspired by a minor subplot in Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn," in which two ruffians attempt impersonation in order to inherit, it is no surprise when we are introduced to a couple of third-rate Shakespearean actors who are struck by a similar plan in his play Leading Ladies. First performed in 2004 and set in 1958, Ken Ludwig's Leading Ladies is directed at The Adobe Theater by relative (Albuquerque) newcomer Lewis Hauser, fast becoming a master of this genre, easily verified by his recent successful productions of Moon over Buffalo, and Shakespeare in Hollywood, all by the same author.

Travelling by train, Leo and Jack, freshly ejected from the lowliest of low playhouses and both on their uppers, read a random newspaper article telling of a wealthy, ailing elderly lady seeking the whereabouts of her long-lost relatives (taken as children) in order to leave them a sizable inheritance before she dies. Then, in one of life's stunning coincidences, after an equally random travelling companion tells them of the woman's death, Leo and Jack plan to masquerade as the heirs, collect the money, and live, one assumes, happily ever after. This is characteristic of Ludwig's style; playfully ribbing thespians for their self-importance and inflated self-worth. Despite discovering a slightly enormous drawback, our duo continue on their quest. Not surprisingly, pandemonium ensues, and continues on the recognizable path of farce, a charming mixture of comedy, high and low, where bawdy, physical humor and silly visuals form a variety of unlikely couplings with the comedies of both manners and ideas.

The best farces seem effortless, despite depending upon a feisty collaborative ensemble, able to ride rising waves of increasingly improbable situations to an emotional, spirited climax. Opening weekend's lively house—well aware of Hauser's forte—waited with barely contained glee. And this production didn't disappoint. Scene after scene flash by. Fourth walls are broken, rebuilt, and occasionally vanished. We, the audience, become part of the play before being hurtled back to oblivion as the action accelerates before us. Ludwig shows unerring instinct and somewhat unexpected forethought in this play. His unexpectedly rounded characters, more so than in some of his other offerings, together with deeper and unforeseen undercurrents, produce, as directed by Hauser, an unanticipated prickle to the back of the eye, and demonstrate why the director is much beloved of his cast.

This is an undeniably hilarious production—a lovely, funny script with a lovely funny group of actors, and it's worth every penny to see certain things you may never unsee. When the pair discover they have to be nieces, not nephews (enter Maxine and Stephanie), and Leo falls in love with the elderly lady's niece Meg, who is inconveniently engaged to the local curate Duncan. The random travelling companion turns out to be Meg's best pal Audrey, who is enamored of Jack, and the local doctor desperately wants his son Butch to marry money, which can only happen when the elderly lady, Florence, dies. Amid all this drama is the ongoing squabble between Leo and Jack. It seems complicated (a scene breakdown in the program might have been helpful) and would be except for the staging and the pace of this riotous assemblage.

Tim Crofton is definitely an asset to the New Mexico theatre scene, and this talented cast provides a respectable ballast to his outrageous talent. (For the most part, the disparity of ability which can typify local productions is not evident here). His cheerfully lusty, mildly lecherous Leo, who alternates between bashful and brave, reminded me of either a 1970s talk show host, or, with a moustache, a '70s porn star, ensuring that he and we enjoy every moment he's onstage. His Maxine, a softer version with various cup sizes hovering over a chest which speaks of a childhood filled with breakfast porridge—he's so happily in touch with his inner femme in this role—is warm and loving yet hilarious as she/he comforts Meg, all the while trying to hide his/her shameless desire. Crofton's flawless costume changes are to be applauded, recovering as he is from recent rotator-cuff surgery (shout out to dresser, Jennifer Benoit).

Partner in crime, Tom Hudgens' Jack is the epitome of the put-upon, ever loyal friend. Mild and rather unadventurous, we can feel his panic when Leo suggests his plan. Hudgens (whom I saw in a much smaller role in Shakespeare in Hollywood last year) is a scream as Stephanie. Blonde flowing tresses above a large hirsute physique, with sometimes uneven bosoms and a strong tendency toward gracelessness, his femininity borders more on the parodic. The scene in which she escapes the unwanted passion of the doctor is really funny, and the straits she puts Leo into toward the end of the play are a riot. Crofton and Hudgens are the dream team of cross-dressers.

Erika Zepeda is very well cast in the role of Meg. I last saw her in Farragut North and noted her understated talent. In Leading Ladies, we see her grow from an innocent, inexperienced girl to the shrewd young woman she needed to be to flee a loveless union. She trips over a plethora of emotions while falling in love with the "wrong" half of a cross-dresser and is captivatingly hilarious as she comes to terms with what she sees as her new reality. Meg's evolution as a character, by turns awkwardly or graciously accomplished by Zepeda, is a fine example of the increased rounding built into the characters, and why we learn to care for them more.

Audrey, played by Christa Bell, is a roller-skating nit-wit; it could be said that, if she ever had a thought it would have died of loneliness. However, she also manages to consistently spurt out the truth, not that anyone takes any heed. Bell does a fine job being both charming and maddening in this role. Then there's Butch (Daniel Anaya), who is so adorable in his varsity sweater and pulls every heartstring as he desperately tries to be the man his father wants him to be. But no matter how hard he tries, and he does, this poor lad is not destined even for mediocrity.

Butch's father Doc (James Kitzmiller) flies the flag of the present administration. Denying his ineptitude as a doctor even in the face of incontestable evidence, he insists his son marries well, even as he himself falls foul to temptation and gets mixed up in the screamingly funny muddle resulting in his exposure. So well done. And then there's Duncan, the minister who, under Kenneth Bennington's care, is a somewhat creepy beau, fairly oozing republican misogyny—no engagement ring or wedding dress for his bride to be and future heiress, Meg. Duncan worries about Florence's health (and wealth) as she seems to be getting better. His beautifully executed tantrum on the phone shows his true colors, making Meg's attraction to him all the more curious.

The standout in this show is Ninette S. Mordaunt as Aunt Florence. It is difficult to describe exactly what she brings to the stage—perhaps a mixture of Betty White's "Rose Nyland" from "The Golden Girls," but bi-polar and with a brain, Lazarus (the biblical chap), and more than a sprinkle of "Dancing with the Stars." Whatever it is, she is an absolute delight—a scene stealer even when unconscious, and double trouble when awake. Mordaunt is the perfect combination of feisty and cranky vs loving and openhearted, and you will love what she does with this role. It's not the first time I've been amazed at the seemingly endless talent in this town.

As always, we all prosper from teamwork—the squad behind the scenes are who makes the magic work. I want to make a special mention regarding Elizabeth Langston's stellar work operating the board, giving us sound and light cue perfection. It's a difficult job, done well here. The stage set, a lovely mixture of trompe l'oeil and solid set building, the creators of which were, for reasons unknown, omitted from the program. So, Linda Wilson, Lynn Friel, and Denise Gordon—hold those paint brushes high! Shannon and Frank, ditto with the saws and hammers. And the chandelier, like Jeffrey Epstein, didn't hang itself, so kudos...?

So there you have it. Leading Ladies illustrates its genre beautifully. Wonderfully written and produced, it doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is, and therefore it succeeds marvelously. Do yourself a favor, catch it before it goes.

Ken Ludwig's Leading Ladies runs through Sunday, February 9, 2020, at The Adobe Theater, 9813 4th Street NW, Albuquerque NM. Friday and Saturday evenings performances start at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2:00 p.m. General Admission $20, discount $17 for seniors, students, ATG/PBS Members, military, first responders, PWYW Thursday, February 6, at 7:30 p.m. Opening Weekend Special: All Tickets $15. For reservations and information, please visit or call 505-898-9222.