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.

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

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

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

The biggest musical comedy star to grace the stage that year was George M. Cohan, buck and winging across the stage as the country's then-current president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt in another Rodgers and Hart show, I'd Rather Be Right. But his topical numbers, particularly the show-stopping "Off The Record," are only known by connoisseurs today while the ballad sung by the show's supporting lovers, "Have You Met Miss Jones," emerged as a jazz standard. Likewise Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg's satirical numbers in Hooray For What?, an Ed Wynn vehicle spoofing war profiteering and blind patriotism, were overshadowed by the score's hit, "Down With Love."

This mix of satirical obscurities and popular standards was most apparent in the 1937 edition of Town Hall's Broadway By The Year series, now entering its 13th season. Creator/writer/host Scott Siegel took his usual place behind a side podium, setting all the selections in their historical and cultural contexts, and, as always, music director Ross Patterson was at piano leading his Little Big Band in arrangements that replicated the many styles of the year. Director Mindy Cooper provided some frequently charming staging.

Review - Lend Me A Tenor & The Broadway Musicals of 1937Perhaps the best example of the contrasting moods of the year's musicals was seen in two knock-out tap numbers performed and choreographed by Danny Gardner. From the short-lived Sea Legs, Gardner wowed the crowd by tap dancing in a straight jacket to the wacky love song "Touched In The Head." Later on, he was joined by Brent McBeth and Derek Roland for "Doing The Reactionary," a Pins and Needles tune about the new "dance craze" that reflected the war rumblings in late '30s Europe. ("It's darker than the dark bottom, it rumbles more than the rumba. / If you think that the goose step's got 'em, just take a look at this numba.")

Another Pins and Needles selection, usually performed as a solo, had Carole J. Bufford, Tonya Pinkins and Elizabeth Stanley lamenting, "Nobody Makes A Pass At Me," with a clever lyric that spoofs Madison Avenue's power over female consumers. Stephen DeRosa led the company in Rome's extremely catchy and quirky "Sing Me A Song With Social Significance."

DeRosa's snappy showmanship was also put to good use in "Way Out West (On West End Avenue)," another popular Babes In Arms tune. He got to show a more somber side with the dramatic ballad "I See Your Face Before Me," from the three month runner, Between The Devil. That show's Dietz and Schwartz score also provided dramatic highlights for Bufford (a rich interpretation of "Why Did You Do It?") and Brian d'Arcy James ("By Myself").

The aforementioned "Miss Jones" couldn't have asked for a finer escort than Mr. d'Arcy James, who also dueted a romantic "Where Or When" with Stanley and cavorted with Pinkins for "I Wish I Were In Love Again." Proving that even the most seasoned pros can have their lapses, d'Arcy James and Pinkins both blanked out a bit on Hart's lyric, but charmingly surged ahead, winning over the audience with ad-libbed lines about their memory losses that fit into the Rodgers melody.

Earlier on, Pinkins smoldered with "Moanin' In The Mornin'," delighted with "My Funny Valentine" and jazzed up the joint with "The Lady Is A Tramp."

Kevin Earley handled the operetta moments with his commanding baritone, eschewing amplification for "Why Did You Kiss My Heart Awake?" from Franz Lehár and Edward Eliscu's Frederika and for his campily-played duet with Stanley, "To Live Is To Love" from Three Waltzes; a show with a score adapted from music by Johann Strauss, Sr., Johann Strauss, Jr. and the unrelated Oscar Straus. Stanley ended the concert belting out "Johnny One-Note."

Photos by Stephen Sorokoff: Top: Danny Gardner; Bottom: Tonya Pinkins.

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