'Lend Me A Tenor' keeps a fast and funny pace

October 28, 1994|By Rona Hirsch | Rona Hirsch,Contributing Writer

Lusty women in hotel rooms, crazed fans, drinking, drugs and suicide attempts -- it's tough to be an opera singer.

But these are just some of the backstage goings-on during a night at the opera in the hit comedy, "Lend Me A Tenor."

The show, launching the Columbia Community Players (CCP) third all-comedy season, will be presented at 8 p.m. today and tomorrow, and Nov. 4 and 5 at Slayton House in Columbia.

The 21-year-old company's other productions include "Cafe Theater," opening in March, and Carl Reiner's "Enter Laughing," slated for May. "Cafe Theatre" will feature either three one-act plays or two one-act plays and a monologue.

CCP decided two years ago to limit its annual lineup to light comedy.

"We made a conscious decision to stay away from theater that's thought-provoking and asks serious questions," said Steve Moore, president of CCP.

"We look for comedies that are fast-moving and designed for good opportunities to laugh. They can go to other places for deep thought and angst."

The angst-free farce "Lend Me A Tenor" was written by Washington attorney Ken Ludwig and produced in 1989 by Andrew Lloyd Webber. The winner of two Tony Awards and four Drama Desk Awards has been translated into 16 languages and turned into a screenplay for Columbia Pictures.

The play's success can be chalked up to its convoluted plot of witty dialogue, quick pacing, dual action and stirring operatic moments.

"The play is pure entertainment," said director Kathy Turyn Romaine, who is also a CCP officer. "The comedy is the premise of the situation. It's unbelieveable but it's written strongly enough for the audience to suspend disbelief."

The show opens in 1934 on an elegant Cleveland hotel suite as Henry Saunders, the manager of the local opera company, ascends into hysteria. He is nervously waiting for the very late Italian opera superstar, Tito Merelli, who is scheduled to sing Verdi's "Otello" for the company's 10th anniversary celebration that evening.

Saunders' timid, bespectacled assistant, Max, who secretely aspires to be an opera singer, tries to comfort Saunders in his unassuring nasal voice.

At that moment, the handsome, charismatic and heavily accented "Il Stupendo" makes a dramatic entrance with his equally dramatic, hot-tempered wife, Maria.

Saunders and Max try to block assorted groupies, including an ** opera-singing bellhop, the ambitious opera singer Diana, opera guild president Julia Leverett and Saunders' daughter, Maggie.

Maggie, who is her unsure of her feelings for the suave-less Max, whom she has dated for years, tries to get her hands on the hot-blooded Il Stupendo by hiding in his bedroom closet.

But Tito arrives sick from overeating and Maria is angry at his flirting and infidelities. While Maria pouts in the bedroom, Tito joins Max in the living room, but not before accidentally overdosing on sedatives.

The good-natured Tito encourages the inhibited Max to pursue his operatic ambitions, even offering vocal tips as the two break into a duet, the aria "Do,che nell'alma infondere" from Verdi's "Don Carlo."

The aria becomes background music for the action happening on the other side of the stage when Maria finds Maggie in the closet. Maria storms out just before Tito falls deeply asleep.

Now the fun begins.

Saunders and Max try to go on with the show despite the array of women hiding in bathrooms and closets.

As is typical of farces, mistaken identities and double entendres reign until everything resolves happily.

The play's split set and split-second timing offered several challenges for Ms. Romaine.

"Evey lead must be strong," said the Ellicott City resident. "Men are hard to get in community theater and here are three demanding roles.

"Then there is the singing. It was a major challenge to find two very good actors who could sing, even though it's only for a short time."

For actor Bill Cookson, who plays Tito, learning the lines and keeping the pace required more work than understanding Tito's motivation.

"The role doesn't require the character study that more serious shows do," said the Ellicott City attorney who was a county prosecutor until last year.

"It requires more energy than anything else. The pacing is so fast and the lines so similar, that it's difficult to get the right words out at the right time."

The company, which shies away from musicals, had to scramble to find a music director to arrange the two arias.

To achieve the bold 1930s art deco set of black, white and red and coordinating costumes that add to the production's sleek and elegant effect, costume designer Lindy Davis combed thrift shops and theater companies for authentic period clothing.

The eight-member cast had to learn lines quickly to free their hands and bodies for the physical comedy and synchronized timing that is typified by the hilarious dual love scene.

"We had to make it look smooth and natural when, in fact, it was highly choreographed," Ms. Romaine said.

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