Some folks go to the theater for an intellectual challenge; others, to see great stars or classic Broadway musicals or to find some much needed comic therapy to chase those Great Recession blues away, at least for a couple of hours. Audiences who’ve been flocking to Studio Theatre’s outrageous revival of James Kirkwood’s legendary Legends! are clearly there for all of the above—well, maybe not for the intellectual challenge part—plus a nearly lethal dose of tinsel town satire.
Legends! first appeared on the scene as a popular 1986 pre-Broadway touring comedy poking fun at the fatuousness of two aging movie-star divas, lifelong rivals blissfully unaware that their tilt-a-whirl ride in the fast lane had ended long ago. Serendipitously, or not, this original production boasted Mary Martin and Carol Channing in the title roles. In a classic case of life imitating art, these relics of a bygone age battled onstage and off and the show never made it to Broadway.
A little over twenty years later, in 2007, Legends! had a go at it again. This time the touring production featured veteran primetime TV soapers Joan Collins and Linda Evans at the top of the bill. Bookings were great. But the ultimate outcome was precisely the same: 24/7 differences of artistic opinion between the real-life legends and no booking on the Great White Way.
Studio Theatre may very well prove that three times is the charm for this show. Shedding what appears to be Legends!’ worst liability—the expectation that two veteran, real-life divas will behave like professional adults—this production casts a pair of dudes in drag, John Epperson (aka the fabulous Lypsinka) and James Lecesne, in the title roles. The result is an over-the-top comic sensation that adds an unimagined dimension to a show that’s already outrageously funny. Edited and updated by Lypsinka, this latest version of Legends! has absolutely no redeeming social value, all the better to allow you to indulge both your laugh and snark reflexes completely guilt-free.
The play’s plot is simple. Aging rival Golden Age actresses Leatrice Monsee (John Epperson) and Sylvia Glenn (James Lecesne)—penniless but still dressing, living, and behaving in the grand style—are invited to revive their respective careers by starring off-Broadway in a fledgling comic play (Legends!, perhaps?) that’s essentially all about them. The good news? Some actual income for a change. The bad news? They’ll have to appear onstage together. This alone is more than enough to light the fuse that ignites a nonstop ninety minutes of hilarity.
It’s funny enough watching two veteran actresses play these parts with claws impeccably sharpened and fangs perfectly bared. But watching Epperson and Lecesne impersonate these actresses going at it transports the comic action to a parallel universe. Both have the look, the walk, the mannerisms honed to perfection, including that wide-eyed sense of outrage that only actresses like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis can ever truly own. The sheer relish with which both actors pursue these epic teapot tempests just adds to the show’s uproariousness.
Legends! isn’t only about Goody Two-shoes Leatrice and Very Bad Girl Sylvia, however. Three additional characters add to the chaos, help set each battle scene to perfection, and add their own amusing shtick to the proceedings.
The play actually opens with the machinations of oily dealmaker Martin Klemmer (Tom Story) as he attempts to dupe the actresses into adopting the dubious script he’s pitching at the moment. Having launched this conceit, he shows up in person at Sylvia’s borrowed apartment to deliver his closing arguments, but is sacked by a batch of Alice B. Toklas brownies (the kind that enabled Bill Clinton to experiment while not inhaling). Story’s impeccable sense of comic timing is essential to establishing the plot and building the climax, and his manic contribution to the show is invaluable.
Ditto the small but essential role of Boom Boom, played to perfection by Leo Christopher Sheridan. Boom Boom shows up at Sylvia’s apartment at precisely the wrong time to perform a stylized Full Monty for an unauthorized party that’s been canceled. This performance is R-rated for sure. But it does libidinous wonders for our aging heroines and keeps the audience gasping for breath.
But the surprise of the show is Rosalind “Roz” White who portrays the world-wise Aretha, Sylvia’s housemaid and jack-of-all-trades. It’s Aretha who scheduled Boom Boom in the first place for the party she had to scrub when Sylvia showed up unexpectedly. And it’s Aretha who sets most of the scenes in motion, egging the players on and manufacturing the dubious brownies. Loaded with sass, self-reliance, and vastly more common sense than either of the doddering actresses, she’s a little like King Lear’s fool, offering sarcastic juicy bits and ironic pearls of wisdom that whiz right over our movie stars’ heads. White’s energetic, confident performance adds connective tissue to this production while adding yet another comic turbo-charge.
For its humor, Legends! depends a great deal on the audience’s knowledge of movie star history, feuds, and topical references. Old time moviegoers will readily recognize the show’s endless references to the Hollywood of old. But Epperson has jazzed this nearly 25-year old play with more updated references and localized bipartisan political jabs that freshen the original vehicle with contemporary spice, in keeping with the old touring shows that added lines and jokes that tied in with each stopping place on the tour.
A small example. In the show’s previous incarnation, Klemmer attempts to con the actresses into performing by promising that Paul Newman will participate in his production. That obviously doesn’t work now. So quite adeptly, the reference has been updated to Brad Pitt, which, of course, makes the divas equally gushy. But the rest of the updates work, too, and the political zingers are surprisingly well targeted.
Legends! is not a family show by any stretch. It’s bawdy, bitchy adult comic entertainment that’s a sure fire, albeit temporary cure for today’s depressing environment of nonstop crises and endless politicking. In an earlier age, Hollywood and the theater were very often the only places where harried adults could exchange their worldly cares for an hour or two of blessed hilarity at someone else’s expense.
Critics often decried these movies and shows as frivolous. But sometimes people need a little comic frivolity to escape the kind of never-ending gloom and monotony that can wear them down. And that’s just what Studio Theatre provides with their current, smart, stylish, Lypsinka-flavored production of Legends!
by James Kirkwood, current version edited by John Epperson
directed by Kirk Jackson
produced by Studio Theatre
reviewed by Terry Ponick
Legends! is scheduled to run thru July 4, 2010.
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.