Review - Lend Me A Tenor & The Broadway Musicals of 1937

If the Broadway revival of a few years back demonstrated the deadly results that can occur when overthinking and underplaying a quality farce, the new Paper Mill mounting is a fast a furious example of Ken Ludwig's madcap Lend Me A Tenor done right. Director Don Stephenson doesn't throw any fancy curveballs with the material, but he and his perfectly cast company of Broadway vets nail every door slam and verbal ping-pong volley with hilarious aplomb.

Set in the fanciest hotel suite 1930s Cleveland can provide (a nifty rendering by John Lee Beatty) Ludwig's antics revolve around a world famous Italian opera star (John Treacy Egan, terrifically spoofing Euro-hamminess), hurried into town without rehearsal, to make his American debut in the title role of a one-night gala performance of Otello, only to have him knocked out by an unintentional overload of sedatives and alcohol shortly before curtain.

The panic-stricken producer (Michael Kostroff, channeling bombastically bellowing straight men like Gale Gordon) assigns Max, his aspiring opera star assistant (a nimble David Josefsberg) the task of disguising himself in the identity-concealing Otello garb and passing himself off as the great tenor; a desperate attempt to escape financial disaster.

Since there must be sex involved in these matters, Max is sweet on the boss's daughter (Jill Paice), who is longing for a fling or two before settling down, preferable with someone like a famous opera star. A fame-hungry soprano (Donna English) and a publicity-hungry arts patron (Nancy Johnston) also have their eyes on the singer they call Il Stupendo. Conveniently, his tempestuously-tempered wife (ferociously funny Judith Blazer) has just walked out on him, but you know she'll be back at the worst possible moment. Rounding out the company is Mark Price as the ambitious and nosey bellhop.

It's probably no coincidence that director Stephenson and most of his ensemble are best known for their work in musical theatre. Not only are Egan and Josefsberg required to be believably operatic in a scene where Il Stupendo gives Max an impromptu voice lesson, but the play's execution depends greatly on playing out rhythms, tones and choreographed chaos. The company makes sweet music out of this one, from the opening chords right through to the special built-in encore.

Photos by Jerry Dalia: Top: Nancy Johnston, Mark Price, Michael Kostroff and Jill Paice; Bottom: David Josefsberg and John Treacy Egan.

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Despite its subplots involving socialism and racial segregation, Rodgers and Hart's Babes In Arms was the least political of the hit musicals that charged onto Broadway stages in that hectic year of 1937. Unlike today, where shows are usually tested through years of readings, workshops and regional productions before coming anywhere near Times Square, in the 1930s a musical could go from initial idea to opening night in a matter of months and the most popular Broadway musicals frequently offered the kind of contemporary satire modern audiences usually get from late night television.

So even though the Babes In Arms score boasted five songs that are undoubtedly considered American Songbook classics ("My Funny Valentine," "Where Or When," "The Lady Is A Tramp," "Johnny One Note" and "I Wish I Were In Love Again") it was Harold Rome's frequently updated topical revue Pins and Needles that became the first Broadway musical to surpass 1,000 performances, though its songs are rarely heard today because they're mostly about bread lines, the rise of Fascism and labor hostilities.

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