A case of mistaken identityand deft comedy in 'Tenor'

July 13, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Since "Lend Me a Tenor" -- the opera-based farce by Washington attorney Ken Ludwig -- tried out for Broadway at the Mechanic Theatre four years ago, the show has found fame and fortune not only in New York, where it garnered seven Tony nominations, but in more than 25 foreign countries.

Ludwig has written the screenplay for Columbia Pictures, and the stage play has been translated into 16 languages. By now "Tenor" is fair game for community theaters (Spotlighters produced it last season) and summer stock. And in case you missed it in one of its other area incarnations -- or if you just feel like laughing all over again -- you can catch director John Going's hilarious version at Olney Theatre.

Even after so many renditions, it doesn't seem fair to give away the plot. Suffice it to say that this comedy of mistaken identity takes place in Cleveland in 1934, in the hotel suite of Tito Merelli, a world-famous Italian tenor who is in town to make his American debut in Verdi's "Otello."

At Olney, Tito is played by Mark Janicello, an honest-to-goodness opera singer, and the director takes advantage of this by having him sing a pre-curtain aria -- "La donna e mobile" from Verdi's "Rigoletto." Besides his vocal ability, Janicello has the proper matinee-idol looks and suave manner to make us believe women would throw themselves at him, as several do in the play.

After the introductory aria, the curtain rises on designer James Kronzer's stunning deco set where the opera company's impresario and his factotum, Max, nervously await Tito's arrival. The production's sole shortcoming is that Philip Pleasants, as the high-strung impresario, gives in to hysterics too soon. Pleasants, who resembles Don Knotts in terms of hyperactivity as well as appearance, begins at such a fever pitch that when the tension mounts he has nowhere to go.

However, Evan Pappas is a joy as Max, the gofer with dreams of glory.Pappas -- who was last seen at Olney in the peculiar musical, "Lucky Stiff," and who subsequently starred on Broadway in the ill-fated "My Favorite Year" -- starts out as a 100 percent nerd, from his adenoidal voice to his glasses and schleppy sweater.

He's especially funny when Tito asks him to sing. Flattered but terrified, he opens his mouth and all that comes out is a cramped little sound. After some comic coaching, however, Pappas' Max holds his own in a duet with Janicello's Tito.

The rest of the cast shines, particularly Halo Wines as the haughty head of the opera guild, Adam Turner as a star-struck bellhop and Tia Speros as Max's reluctant fiancee.

Director Going keeps the action moving at fast-farce speed and he goes himself one better at the curtain call, when the actors fast-forward through the entire play.

One last word about Mark Janicello. There are plenty of operatically trained tenors, but there probably aren't too many who would willingly make fools of themselves in the affectionate way Ludwig's script demands. One reason for Janicello's success may be that in addition to his opera credits, he is also an Elvis impersonator. He'll give a sampling of both careers in a one-man performance at the theater at 8 p.m. Monday. It could be your only chance to hear "Love Me Tender" and "La donna e mobile" on the same bill.

THEATER REVIEW

What: "Lend Me a Tenor"

Where: Olney Theatre, 2001 Route 108, Olney

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays; 2:30 p.m. matinees Sundays and July 17, 2 p.m. July 22. Through Aug. 1

Tickets: $20-$25

$ Call: (301) 924-3400

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