Things got pretty raucous amid roars of laughter as Ken Ludwig’s Leading Ladies  tripped the light fantastic at The Playhouse last week. Director Jeff Horger has left no turn unstoned in this vigorous non-stop farrago. Highly skilled performers did the material as much justice as can be mustered.

The premise is not far distant from Brandon Thomas’ legendary Charlie’s Aunt   wherein a man dons women’s clothes for financial gain. In this instance, it’s double the fun. 

Leo Clark and Jack Gable, two English chaps of limited talent as Shakespearean actors and limited means, come up with a scheme in a small eastern Pennsylvania town to pass themselves off as Maxine and Stephanie, nieces to deathbed-prone Florence Snider. Maximum complications ensue when Leo falls head over heels in love with a real niece, local gal Meg. And Jack flips his wig for another one, Audrey. Meg, however, is engaged to uptight minister Duncan Wooley. Meanwhile marriage is on the mind of Doc Myers; he wants his son Butch to grab the family jewels by hooking up with Meg.

During the course of the Brit boys’ charade, it becomes clear that Meg has a couple of dreams. One involves her in the arms of the real Leo whom she’s admired on stage in Philadelphia. The other is for her to perform Shakespeare, ideally in Twelfth Night. Consequently when Leo tries to fulfill her first dream in person, switching wardrobe and vocal range, he gets the locals to join her in performing that play.

Essentially this has all the earmarks and footfalls of a farce. Plenty of doors, but more as décor than as frameworks for slam-banging. Yet, Ludwig’s major source of laughs spins on action and deeds, rather than funny lines. Although Doc has some great ones. And a second act scene between Duncan and Jack/Stephanie re misunderstanding could bring the house down.

Ludwig inserted some wonderful digs about actors. And his references to Twelfth Night  look quite clever, given that play’s cross-dressing. Unfortunately, trying to strike comedic gold by incorporating that element, the second act can look as padded as Maxine and Stephanie’s chests, given obvious business regarding amateur actors looking amateur. There are also quite long phone conversations between Duncan and a local authority from whom he’s trying to get assistance to unmask the probable impostors.

Horger zipped in plenty of funny business prop-wise and kept the whole thing moving vigorously, adding a breathless post-script romp all over the stage. However, last Saturday, it looked as if too many stops were pulled out. Principally Michael Judah’s attempt at defining Leo as an outright ham went way over the top, throwing a lot off-kilter. The UNO grad has recently shown much talent; here he showed that he still has things to learn.  Inevitably, in such a situation, other cast members couldn’t help being influenced. This led to too much yelling and other occasional excesses. Holding their own ground, Will Muller and Don Harris  perfectly stayed in character as did Sue Mouttet. Kevin Goshorn’s Jack/Stephanie seemed almost in control.

Muller’s playing as Duncan stood out with just the right tone, made funny by being more real than caricature. Underneath, too, he gave the minister an appealing suggestion of little boy innocence. Harris’ take on snappy Doc had all the good timing and pace of a talented stand-up comic. And Mouttet as a cutie-pie Florence proved that there was life in the old dame yet.

Costume Designer Amanda Fehlner came up with a laugh-winning dress for Stephanie and great outfits for Florence, while Steve Wheeldon’s Snider Residence looked believably real and solid enough to withstand all the action.  

Missing from the program book is info about the playwright. Ken Ludwig has become a leading man for theatrical invention turning out such jollies as Crazy for You, Lend Me a Tenor, Moon Over Buffalo, Tiny Tim’s Christmas Carol  and Twentieth Century.

The audience stood and cheered, having had a great time.

Leading Ladies runs through May 7, Hawks Mainstage Theatre, Omaha Community Playhouse,6915 Cass St. Weds.-Sat.: 7:30 p.m. Sunday: 2 p.m. Tickets $18-$36.

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