December 1, 2006

Familiar but funny nevertheless
By David Ollington

David Fritts and Bernie Kopell in Leading Ladies at the New Theatre Restaurant (photo by Mark Baltzley)

The New Theatre Restaurant belongs on the must-be-experienced in Kansas list. The theater’s building alone inspires wonder with its unusual décor and practical design. Add to that an efficient, courteous wait staff and ample food that delights the palette. The total experience exudes comforting warmth, regardless of the quality of the play itself.

Fortunately, their comedic entrée Leading Ladies, starring Bernie Kopell (ABC’s The Love Boat), matches the previously mentioned excellence.

Ken Ludwig (author of Moon Over Buffalo and Lend Me a Tenor) created a quintessential piece for the dinner theater aesthetic. Set in the late 1940s, the show efficiently employs common farcical conventions: men dressed as women, people hiding to overhear conversations, notes mistakenly delivered, people in love and a generous helping of buffoonery. The conservatism of the plot fits the Johnson County audience like a puzzle piece. Go to the New Theatre to enjoy a meal, not to question tough issues or challenge your thinking.

Two British, Shakespearean and starving actors Leo Clark (Nathan Darrow) and Jack Gable (David Fritts) play a gig in York, Pennsylvania. On the train, Leo reads in the newspaper of the estate of a York dowager, Florence Snider (Joicie Appell). Clearly in her waning years, she announces her search for the rightful heirs to her fortune, Max and Joe. Leo reads that Max and Joe moved to England years ago and that Max had gone into the theater. He insistently cajoles Jack into impersonating the two heirs to secure the inheritance.

Audrey (Natalie Hiatt) rolls into the train car on roller skates and in the ensuing, flirtatious conversation with the two actors, vacantly informs them that Max and Joe are actually Maxine and Joanne. She skates away and Leo pulls dresses and gowns out of their costume supply, demanding they continue the charade but en travesti.

Meg, the cousin of the real-life Maxine and Joanne, played by the effervescent Jennifer Mays, plans to marry Duncan (Brian Paulette), a stuffy minister. Leo as Maxine enters her life. Leo’s attraction to Meg manifests its awkward self. The deception forces Jack to cavort in silence because Maxine, they learn, cannot hear or speak. He develops a crush on Audrey, which he must express non-verbally.

Kopell plays Doc, a quack that repeatedly mistakenly proclaims Florence dead. Florence turns to him and says, “There’s a pot roast in the kitchen. See if you can find its pulse.” Doc finds “Joanne” (Leo in drag) fetching.

Ludwig wove several stories together and managed to plant ideas early in the play that return to cleanly wrap up the farcical plot. The extreme but somehow buyable story allows the skilled actors room to dabble.

Fritts and Darrow speak with clear and consistent British dialects, perform fractured Shakespeare with an overly serious pretense and hurl themselves over set pieces expressing the embarrassing desperation of the characters. Fritts articulates with a deep, resonant voice, contrasting Darrow’s lighter, more erudite character. The two demonstrate meticulous training, clearly competent at both classical and dinner theater.

Kopell receives applause at his first entrance, wearing a Shriner’s hat and introducing the Shakespearean actors. He bemoans the 1949 cost of gas, “22 cents a gallon! When will it end?” and gently ribs audience members. He effectively adds to the comedy of the entire event without dominating. Director Richard Carrothers created a true theatrical ensemble. Kopell concludes the evening with a beguiling curtain speech.

The program fails to acknowledge some important contributors to the production. In the opening fractured Shakespeare scene, Fritts and Darrow engage in some tepid swashbuckling swordplay. No fight choreographer is credited. Fritts and Darrow, however, show enough skill as actors they conceivably could have done it themselves.

Act II includes a tango to the epitome of tango tunes, “La Cumparsita.” The satirical dance receives a few chuckles, but in the hands of a more creative choreographer, it could bring down the house. The program lists no dance choreographer.

The antics of the two men dressed as women later in the play require the actors to make some extreme costume changes in literally seconds. Leo and Jack get so tired of pretending to be women they find a way to bring their male personas into Florence’s home. Leo will say, “I’ll go get Maxine,” and return as her. Someone backstage offers some expert and thoroughly rehearsed changing assistance. Unfortunately, because of the program’s oversight, we know not who helps dress them.

Scenic designer Keith Brumley created a set that impressively changes silently, in blackouts, from train station to home interior to Shakespeare set. Given the current popularity of dancing sets, a show with more traditional scene changes is a relief.

Leading Ladies runs until Feb. 10, 2007, at the New Theatre Restaurant, 9229 Foster, Overland Park, KS. Call 913-649-SHOW or visit

David Ollington can be contacted at


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