'Lend Me a Tenor' sings with laughter

September 16, 1994|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Special To The Sun

Most theatrical farces these days seem to involve staid British vicars cavorting in their underwear amid countless cases of mistaken identity. Ugh.

But when "Il Stupendo," Italy's greatest tenor, came to Cleveland Sept. 9 to sing Verdi's "Otello," and in the process created more mayhem, infidelity and, yes, cases of mistaken identity than you could believe, I laughed as much as anyone in the theater.

That's because "Lend Me a Tenor," the Ken Ludwig play currently in production at the Colonial Players of Annapolis, is a witty, hilarious farce that goes well beyond formulaic nonsense to garner its belly laughs.

With a suitably crazed cast along for the ride, "Lend Me a Tenor" is the first "must see" of the fall season.

When Tito Merelli, the great tenor, arrives in Cleveland with his long-suffering spitfire of a wife in tow, everyone is thrilled, especially Saunders, the oily impresario who hired Merelli.

Maggie, his nubile daughter, can't wait to explore other possibilities as to how "Il Stupendo" got his nickname. There's even an overly anxious bellhop who goes around croaking out Rossini's "Largo al factotum" at the drop of a hat to anyone who will listen!

The unenviable task of baby-sitting the singing star falls to Max, the young opera house assistant, who is also Maggie's boyfriend. It's not long before disaster strikes.

Has "Il Stupendo" really ascended to that great opera house in the sky?

Who will sing "Otello" before Cleveland's assembled glitterati?

Why is one Otello assaulting a cop at the very moment another is onstage crying "Sangue!" to Iago?

And, why do both Otellos (Otelli?) prove equally irresistible to the three women prowling the hotel suite? You'll have to see the play to find out these answers.

Scott Nichols, the talented University of Maryland student who has become a familiar presence in a variety of supporting roles, truly comes of age as a comic lead in his portrayal of Max.

Always an affable presence on stage, Mr. Nichols demonstrates terrific comic timing, a delightful sense of hysteria, and some of the funniest broken sentences you'll ever hear.

Joe Brunetti began somewhat haltingly as "Il Stupendo" but was hilarious once everything came unglued in Act II.

His facial expressions alone are worth the price of a ticket.

Alas, neither he nor Nichols can sing or come close to faking Verdi, so disbelief must be suspended in their duet and at the play's conclusion. Too bad.

Bryan Barrett was a suitably exasperated Saunders, despite some opening night stammers. John Gagosian was cute as the serenading bellboy.

The women are also fun, especially Kelly McPhee as the libidinous Maggie, Tiffany Givens as Stupendo's slinky, oversexed Desdemona, and Priscilla Schneider as the obnoxious socialite who never met a fella with a high-C she didn't like. Nancy Dall also gets her laughs as Merelli's tempestuous wife, though at times she seems more Transylvanian than Tuscan.

Phillip Levy's direction is generally effective, especially in the fast-paced lunacy of Act II. However, I couldn't see some of the events from my "end-zone" seat. And, I wonder about that endless curtain call, which mugs shamelessly for extra laughs.

The show has more than enough of them as it is.

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