Totem Pole's 'Tenor' is a hoot Review: Theater's slick production of a wild farce makes a mockery of Murphy's Law.

July 06, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

When a character in a farce proclaims: "Absolutely nothing can go wrong," you can be dead certain there's trouble ahead.

But just about everything goes right in Totem Pole Playhouse's production of "Lend Me a Tenor," the Ken Ludwig farce in which those fated words are spoken by the producer of the fictitious Cleveland Grand Opera Company.

The things that go right begin with Baltimore actor Wil Love's portrayal of the producer, whose name is Saunders and who is having a Murphy's Law kind of day.

The time is September 1934, and Saunders has engaged a world-famous Italian tenor, Tito Merelli, to make his American debut that night in Verdi's "Otello." But Tito -- whose nickname, "Il Stupendo," apparently refers to his passion for wine and women as well as song -- is late.

When Tito finally shows up, he's sick to his stomach from over-eating -- a condition actor Robert Boardman conveys with queasy verisimilitude -- and his jealous wife is so fed up with his shenanigans, she walks out on him. Hoping Tito will get some rest before the performance, Saunders leaves him in the wary care of the company factotum, Max, who is himself an aspiring opera singer.

That's when Murphy's Law goes into high gear -- though in deference to those unfamiliar with this delightfully witty comedy, this critic will reveal no more. Suffice it to say that in the best tradition of farce, the ensuing action is filled with mistaken identities, fast entrances and exits, and the requisite slamming doors -- all skillfully orchestrated by director Carl Schurr, Totem Pole's Baltimore-based producing artistic director.

Getting back to Love's portrayal of Saunders, when this perpetually agitated producer returns to Tito's lavish hotel suite and discovers that matters have taken a turn for the worse, Love lets Saunders' fury build. First, his eyes narrow to tiny slits behind his round, horn-rimmed glasses, then he unleashes a physical assault, and finally, in sheer desperation, he grovels like a sniveling toddler, clinging to Max's ankles as he pleads for his help.

But what makes Love's portrayal even more comically effective is that he allows the audience to take the full measure of his conniving character. At one point in Saunders' shameless display of histrionics, Love pauses ever so briefly -- just long enough to alert us to his character's phoniness and to ascertain that a further display is required to win Max over.

Much of the success of "Lend Me a Tenor" depends on Max, and Joel Carlton has this young man's eagerness down pat. Like J. Pierrepont Finch in "How to Succeed in Business," Carlton's Max has the slick charm and chutzpah the role requires. Carlton is also convincing as an opera devotee. But for a potential opera singer, his voice seems a bit thin, especially in the first act, when he sings a duet with Boardman's Tito.

But Carlton's spirit is ultimately of more consequence, and he's brimming with that, as are most of his fellow actors, including Deanna Harris as Saunders' naive daughter and Max's reluctant fiancee; Deborah Jean Templin as Tito's fiery, suspicious wife; Sherry Skinker as Tito's sexy Cleveland co-star; and Breton Frazier as the Margaret Dumont-like chairman of the Opera Guild.

Totem Pole's physical production is lovingly detailed -- from the gilded Baroque hotel suite designed by James Fouchard to the period costumes by David Burdick, who is the costumer at Center Stage during the regular theater season.

One costume merits particular mention. The imposing Opera Guild chairman wears a gown described by Saunders as looking like the Chrysler Building. But never yet -- including in the Broadway production that tried out at the Mechanic Theatre seven years ago -- have I seen a dress that captured that description as aptly as Burdick's silver creation, complete with short, pleated sleeves that jut out at the shoulders like flying buttresses.

Finally, this production marks the completion of a circle for playwright Ludwig. A native of nearby York, Pa., he used to attend Totem Pole when he was growing up. Now a Washington-based attorney as well as a playwright, he continues to feel such a strong allegiance to this summer theater that he visited earlier this week and held question-and-answer sessions with the audience.

"Lend Me a Tenor," he said, has been produced in 30 countries and translated into more than two dozen languages. Totem Pole's production makes it easy to understand why, like opera, Ludwig's brand of laughter has proved a universal language.

'Lend Me a Tenor'

Where: Totem Pole Playhouse, 9555 Golf Course Road, Caledonia State Park, in Fayetteville, Pa., 14 miles west of Gettysburg

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; matinees at 2: 30 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Through July 14

Tickets: $14-$20

Call: (717) 352-2164

Pub Date: 7/06/96

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