Michael L. Quintos
- Los Angeles Critic
When it comes to the theatrical art of farce, Ken Ludwig's hilarious 1986 stage play 'LEND ME A TENOR' certainly qualifies as a perfect example of the genre. Amusingly cheeky throughout, the 9-time Tony Award nominated comedy has been revived locally with a posh new production under the direction of Art Manke that is now playing at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts through November 13.
Utilizing a laundry list of classic madcap set-ups such as mistaken identities, room swaps, excess elixirs, hilarious misunderstandings, and bawdy overtones—plus quirky, over-the-top characters that are wonderfully unaware of what's happening around them—'LEND ME A TENOR' feels very much like a well-paced, meticulously crafted, old fashioned sitcom episode that has been super-sized into two gloriously funny acts.
And while the first act sets up the situation through a series of happenstances that layers one misunderstanding after another, the second act skillfully unravels the highly-exaggerated consequences and reverberating after-shocks of these earlier set-ups that has the audiences in stitches.
The entire play transpires within Tom Buderwitz's beautifully retro set: a pair of adjoining rooms—a living room on one side, a bedroom on the other—that make up a high-rise hotel suite in Cleveland, Ohio. The wall and door that separates the two rooms? Remember it, because that architectural feature allows for the hilarity to unfold for us.
It is 1934 and the buzz around town is the impending arrival of a famous international opera superstar, Italian tenor Tito Merelli (Davis Gaines, in full divo mode), who has been commissioned by the Cleveland Grand Opera Company to play the lead role in their local production of Giuseppe Verdi's famous opera Otello. Understandably, Tito's anticipated appearance in such a momentous event is a huge deal, and everyone involved wants it all to go as smoothly as possible.
Of course, a farce wouldn't be that funny if everything goes according to plan.
Keenly aware of the stakes at hand, the Opera company's gruff general manager Henry Saunders (J. Paul Boehmer) is standing by at Tito's reserved suite at the hotel to make sure all does go well with the planned engagement. He has even assigned his adorkably nerdy assistant Max (the impressive John Shartzer) to make sure that all of Tito's needs and demands (both material and emotional) are fulfilled during his stay and that he is escorted personally to the theater.
Meanwhile, Henry's daughter Maggie (Kelley Dorney), a wide-eyed super-fan of Tito's is ecstatic that her idol is coming—much to the chagrin of her boyfriend Max, to whom she has just admitted of her infatuation with the opera star. She desperately wants to meet Tito and get his autograph (well, at the very least).
Soon enough, after some will he/won't he show up drama, Tito (known as "Il Stupendo" by his fans) arrives at his suite accompanied by her divaliciously overemphatic wife Maria (the terrific Catherine LeFrere) who is already quite annoyed by her husband's constant flirtations with other women. Her jealousy explodes even further when she finds Maggie "hiding" in the bedroom closet, and assumes she's another one of her husband's mistresses. Furious and fed-up, Maria decides to write her husband a kiss-off letter before leaving in a huff.
Concurrently in the next room, Max is attending to an anxious Tito.
To calm him down before the big show that evening, Max secretly doses Tito's drink with tranquilizers, unaware that Tito himself has already been medicating himself quite a bit. Starting to become loopy from the meds, Tito offers the nervous Max opera lessons after learning of Max's own operatic aspirations (their duet actually sounded quite good!). But as expected, Tito later becomes irrational and inconsolable upon finding Maria's "Dear John" letter, going so far as to make multiple—but ultimately hilariously inept—attempts at suicide.
Somehow Max is able to ease Tito down eventually, putting him to bed for a much-needed pre-show nap. Luckily, Tito's heavily-medicated body is succumbing to the sluggishness and quickly passes out.
Time passes and Max encounters difficulty in waking up Tito for the big show. By Tito's bedside, the distraught Max finds some medicine bottles—of course, thinking the worst immediately. He took all these pills! Oh, and what's this? Not knowing of Maria's "goodbye" note, Max assume it is Tito's own suicide note! Oh no!
Understandably, Max's boss is unhappy to learn of Tito's untimely passing... mostly because of, well, its ill timing. The opera performance is hours away and without Tito, the audience will riot and the resulting mess will be disastrous both economically and reputation-wise for the local Opera company.
But, hey... here's an idea.
With the public still unaware of Tito's death, Henry—concerned mostly for the welfare of his career—devises a wicked plan that will keep the show opening as scheduled. You see, opera fanatic and budding tenor Max just happens to know the entire score of Otello! And considering Othello—the opera's title character—is often played in full period costume and (yikes) blackface makeup, the audience will never know that Tito isn't the man portraying the character on stage... that is if Max agrees to step into the role. Henry's plan is to have Max pretend to be Tito pretending to be Othello for one night, and then the next day the theater will announce that Tito died the following morning.
As 'LEND ME A TENOR's first act draws to a close, Max emerges from the bathroom in full Shakespearean costume (and, yes, blackface) and Henry whisks off his newest understudy to the theater. Alas, little did they know that as soon as they leae, Tito suddenly wakes from his deep slumber!
Thus ushers a gut-busting second act that finds characters going in and out of both rooms in the suite in a hilariously choreographed series of close calls and amusing misunderstandings. As far as everyone else is concerned, Tito Merelli performed the role of Othello brilliantly at the performance—and no one ever suspected that it wasn't Tito up there!
So convincing is young Max in pretending to be Tito at the performance that even the Opera Guild Chairwoman, Julia (Colette Kilroy) and Tito's very own lusty co-star, Diana (Leslie Stevens) are fooled into thinking they are in the presence of a world-famous operatic tenor.
Unfortunately, though, while Henry celebrates the triumphant performance pulled off by Max, he is alarmed by news regarding a "madman" dressed in full Othello costume and make-up who had shown up at the stage door during the middle of the performance—insisting that he is the real Tito. The police are now looking for this runaway "suspect" who attempted to break into the opera house. Of course, none of them are aware that Tito himself has awakened (and in a bit of early foreshadowing, Tito earlier in the play makes it a point to tell Henry and Max that, like a boy scout, he is always prepared: he often brings two exact copies of his Othello costume to every gig).
And wouldn't you know it, as Max goes into the bedroom to change out of his Othello costume, he is perplexed by a sight... or, rather, a lack thereof: Tito's body is no longer in the bed! Oh, crap... where did he go?
Quirky, acceptably outrageous, and genuinely funny, La Mirada's crackling production of 'LEND ME A TENOR' (presented by McCoy Rigby Entertainment) is farce at its silly yet still highbrow best. The jokes, sight gags, and over-the-top-ness comes fast and furious once the initially slow set-up is established. Though the play finds its humor in the predictable—because the very nature of farce is its ability to showcase the expected traits of the genre—it is in this reliable, comical environment that audiences will find the story and its criss-crossing amusements extremely pleasing.
In the world of a farce, of course the awkward boy with the golden voice is going to get his big break at the expense of a big buffoonish star's "tragedy," only to learn that things are too good to be true! Of course everyone has no idea this same awkward boy is getting away with disguising his true identity. And, of course the hotel's intrusive, fame-seeking bellhop (scene-stealing pro Jeff Skowron) shows up to provide more comic relief.
It is also in this kind of comedy that an audience can suspend shock for some, well, despicable behavior, and it's perfectly fine. Would anyone really just leave a dead guy behind and take his place? Well us knowing that, no, Tito isn't really dead make this a little more okay, I suppose. Oh and, yeah, Max's girl cheating on him by full-on seducing her idol Tito is pretty darn shady—but it's okay because, well, look... it's not really Tito she's straddling, it's his boyfriend Max in disguise! In 'LEND ME A TENOR,' naughtiness is cheekily celebrated, and we laugh ourselves silly.
Visually, the play is filled with vintage goodness from David Kay Mickelsen's lavish costumes paired with Katie McCoy's wig designs, to Jared A. Sayeg's lighting and Steven Cahill's contributions to sound design and musical direction.
The superb cast, naturally, helps perpetuate this atmosphere. Gaines, as Tito, has certainly reveled in many histrionic male diva roles lately, and here, he especially transcends to new heights of comedic gold. Paired with the fiery LeFrere as Maria (a character that could have been plucked out of a telenovela), it was a hoot watching the couple square off (my one gripe of the play is that there wasn't enough of Maria). Gaines also has great rapport with Shartzer, who makes a charming, star-in-the-making appearance that should land him many more leads in the future (and hopefully many of them will be musicals).
And, yes, the two talented actors both don blackface make-up (as is expected of white actors who play Othello), which is pretty much the second act's most important plot device. Fortunately, savvy theatergoers will get it and see the dark humor in it.
The producers of 'LEND ME A TENOR' went so far as to include a lengthy editorial in the program explaining the inclusion of blackface in the play, which is, well, understandable. Sure, there's still something very disconcerting about seeing a non-African American actor in blackface (let alone two), particularly in 2016, even if it is framed within an old-fashioned comedy that takes place during a time when such a thing was still considered "okay." The practice itself is pretty darn awful, and I do believe that this play is aware of that fact and sought to make its practice a target of ridicule. The characters are so incredibly clueless that, of course, even the make-up still becomes a point of confusion that somehow make the much-older Tito an exact doppelgänger of the much-younger Max.
For the play, the very practice of blackface make-up as a theatrical crutch is something highly ridiculous—just as ridiculous as any of the other ridiculous things that happen in the play. It's a ballsy plot point in a very silly farce that deserves to be rediscovered in this excellent new production.
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Photos from the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts' production of LEND ME A TENOR by Michael Lamont.
The McCoy Rigby Entertainment presentation of LEND ME A TENOR continues at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts through Sunday, November 13, 2016. The theater is located at 14900 La Mirada Boulevard in the city of La Mirada. Parking is Free. For tickets, visit www.LaMiradaTheatre.com or call (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310.