How many laughs and smiles can be packed into a single two-hour, 40-minute show?
Richey Suncoast Theatre gives that question a good test with a splendid rendition of the comedy Leading Ladies, playing weekends through Oct. 30, thanks to smart casting decisions by director Robin New and solid performances by each actor.
Outstanding is award-winning Richey Suncoast newcomer Miguel Rodriguez (director-actor at Carrollwood Players) whose comic timing and physical humor as Leo Clark, a down-on-his-luck Shakespearean actor, is priceless.
In the play, set in York, Pa., in 1958, Leo and his acting partner, Jack Gable (a charming Jason Hoolihan), decide to impersonate the long-lost relatives of a supposedly dying millionaire, Florence (an adorable Susan Nichols), in order to finance their future acting efforts.
Problem is, the relatives, "Max" and "Steve," turn out to be Maxine and Stephanie, two young women and not strapping men such as Leo and Jack. Undaunted, the guys dig through their Shakespearean costumes for wigs and outfits to transform themselves into imitation doting nieces in totally outlandish garb.
And, really, is there anything funnier than big, 5 o'clock-shadowed fellows playing young girls with high, trilling voices? Especially fellows as talented as Rodriguez and Hoolihan. Rodriguez is here, there and everywhere, making quick changes from Max to Maxine to Max, double and triple takes, and coy pauses, while deftly and unobtrusively allowing laughs to die down before delivering his next line. Hoolihan manages to keep a straight face, while stumbling about in "Stephanie" high heels, a diaphanous dress and lavender wings like those of Titania in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
They're supported by some of the New Port Richey theater's best, including multiaward-winning Bill Schommer as Doc, the gold-digging dad to Butch (Jeffrey Schoonmaker, a master of pratfalls), and Rich Aront as the Rev. Duncan Wooley. Schommer can steal a scene simply by walking on stage. But, trouper that he is, he resists the urge and simply ups the ante with his performance skills. It is gratifying to see Aront, a skilled performer in his own right, doing a bang-up job in a key role, after having done yeoman's duty in several minor on-stage (but major backstage) parts.
Rounding out this pleasingly talented cast are stage newcomers Blake Parker as Meg, fiancee to the money-grubbing Rev. Wooley (ah, but it's all for "charity," he assures), and Ashlee Craft as the roller-skating Audrey, adored by Butch, but smitten by Jack. Parker's Meg is sweetly naive and innocent. Craft's Audrey is spunky and cute, nodding sweetly and uttering non-sequiturs, though Audrey is smarter and wiser than she sounds. These two young ladies are keepers, with promising futures on stage.
Leading Ladies moves quickly and smoothly, a credit to director New, who also took on stage manager duties, aided by a sizable backstage crew. This is the third show by multiple Tony Award-winning playwright Ken Ludwig at Richey Suncoast, the previous two being Moon Over Buffalo and Lend Me a Tenor. Still another is on the schedule, Shakespeare in Hollywood, set for Jan. 12 to 29.
By the way, Ludwig was born in York, Pa., the locale for Leading Ladies, and knows the area well.