Lend Me a Tenor does come with a
plot, and there is even some plot tension, but most of the comedy
arises from characters playing against themselves, as in commedia dell’arte. The explosive manager of the Cleveland Grand Opera, Saunders (Lanny Freshman, Family Times’
very own Dr. Lanny), is holding a hotel reception for the world’s
greatest tenor, Tito Merelli (Matt Nilsen), who is about to appear in
the local opera house. The veins on Saunders’ neck begin to bulge when
it appears that Merelli will not arrive on time, and he turns to his
much put-upon assistant Max (Terence LaCasse) for solutions.
Recognizing that the unseen understudy is unacceptable, as is a
star-struck bellhop (Alan D. Stillman), Max agrees to take on the job
of singing the title role of Verdi’s Otello himself. In taking
on this impossible task he hopes to impress Saunders’ lovely daughter
Maggie (Anne Freund), who has opened the scene by swooning over one of
Despite reports, the great tenor
himself does indeed arrive, but suffers much under the acid tongue of
his harridan wife Maria (Binaifer Dabu). Complications rise further
when Maria departs in a snit and Merelli is despondent, possibly even
suicidal. Somebody dressed in a costume with blackface sings the role
with success, while another person in the identical costume tries to
break into the theater after hours. The soprano singing the role of
Desdemona, Diana (Sarah Reid), is smitten with the tenor in the leading
role and shows up at the hotel room looking for some late-night nooky.
Necessary also is Julia (B.J. Newsome), Saunders’ wife and Maggie’s
mother, a grande dame whom the husband compares with the Statue of
Nora O’Dea’s scenic design neatly
divides the stage right down the middle into co-equal halves, with one
slamming door between the right and left half. One side is supposed to
be a reception room while the other is a bedroom, but they are
sufficiently alike to allow for parallel actions in the two halves.
Better yet, as the door between the two sides can be closed, we often
see actions on one side that are denied to the other, such as people
escaping the scene or a scantily clad young woman preparing for a bath.
While a good deal of Ludwig’s humor is
verbal, with Lanny Freshman’s Saunders getting many of the best lines,
far more of it relies on ancient devices deriving from Roman comedy,
like mistaken identity. Devices that were updated in the 1930s by the
Marx Brothers, like having two characters dressed in the same costumes
miming each other as if looking in a mirror, pop up here. Anyone with
any knowledge of the play knows this scene is coming, but it is amazing
how well it still works.
Unlike Kaufman or Feydeau, Ludwig also
introduces some erotic comedy when the two younger women, Maggie and
Diana, reveal some G-rated skin, one in her skivvies, the other in a
bath towel. Increasing the symmetry, both damsels think they are
romancing the same tenor.
Although still a young man, Terence
LaCasse has been playing ambitious go-getters for what seems like a
decade. Only he’s doing it differently, indicating more restraint and
subtler interpretation from his recent instruction in Le Moyne
College’s theater program. Lanny Freshman’s reliable delivery of
Ludwig’s crackling good lines is what many community theater directors
are looking for. By adopting a wide-stepping, heavy-footed gait,
Binaifer Dabu manages to look about six inches taller than her
4-foot-11 height and readily steals every scene she’s in. In the
relatively thankless role of Julia, B.J. Newsome presents a fluttery
Margaret Dumont partially inhabited by Spring Byington.
When it comes to Italian accents, Matt
Nilsen gains much by speaking slowly. But Dabu, LaCasse and Alan D.
Stillman speak and sing Italian as if they had at least been practicing
with audio tapes in the car.
Farce calls for speed rather than a light touch, and that’s what director Dan Stevens delivers for Lend Me a Tenor. He even closes the show with the farcical convention of having the players run through all their paths at triple the pace.
This production runs through Sept. 26. See Times Table for information.