BWW Reviews: LEND ME A TENOR at Paper Mill Playhouse
A great opera needs high stakes, major drama, and star-studded performances to succeed.
Ken Ludwig's farce LEND ME A TENOR set in the opera world has high stakes, major comedy, and has packed the stage of the Paper Mill Playhouse with a performance that had the opening night crowd laughing hysterically and up on their feet the moment the curtain came down.
This comedy set in the 30s centers around a Cleveland opera company anticipating the arrival of the great Italian opera tenor Tito Merelli to perform the title role in their production of "Otello." After arriving with his hot-tempered wife, the womanizing singer ends up passed out and the company impresario Saunders and his lowly assistant Max come up with a crazy idea of how to continue the production without their star. Naturally this leads to mistaken identity, lots of actors running around the stage, scantily-clad women, and plenty of hijinks. Though first performed on Broadway in the late 80s and revived there a few years back, the play definitely has the feel of witnessing something from years gone by, when famous comedic teams head-lined the stage and screen and physical humor was the rage. It is no wonder theater companies turn to this show instead of pulling out an old chestnut when looking to add a farce to their line-up. Ludwig tips his hat to those gems of yesteryear, but adds a fresh spin on it.
The set up for the show is done deftly as Michael Kostroff as Saunders gets the evening rolling with his energy, pacing, and high stressed punctuation of a 'hand to forehead' to ward off any explosion in his head. He works out the plan of the event with his daughter Maggie played by a wonderfully charming and wide-eyed Jill Paice and his go-to assistant Max - the incredible David Josefsberg. It is up to these three to represent the heart of this story and they do it with a pounding gusto that one expects from a well-oiled machine of performers. It is Max's love of opera and his love for Maggie that leads him down the crazy road and Mr. Josefsberg is a delightful Max. His mild-mannered yet anxious Max is allowed to bloom into the star he was meant to be - if only for one night which all aids in wooing the love of his life. Josefsberg's comic chops is evident in each well-planned choice he makes, but he is also gifted with an amazing voice to shine when it is time for Max to 'show-off' his love of the art form.
John Treacy Egan is a commanding presence when he enters the stage as Merelli. The character is based on all the opera stars that we may know, and Egan has rolled them into one over-blown virtuoso while showing his master of comedy degree. I've always known he has an incredible voice, but it is the level of comedy that he displays in this role that is most impressive. His resume of past work is evident as he understands nuance of highs and lows in comedy and working off of Judy Blazer as his wife Maria is sheer gold on stage. Blazer owns the stage each time she arrives as the feisty, out-for-blood type of wife that knows of her husband's philandering ways and attempts to keep him in line. She is a powerhouse yet restrained enough to appreciate the give and take of what good comedic ensemble works means. She and Egan have worked out a wonderful rhythm as husband and wife and represent the outsiders of the core group brilliantly. (Blazer also serves as the dialect coach and the Italian in this show was spot on.)
A farce would be nothing if there were not more characters to add to the confusion of 'who is who' when it steps into high gear and this tenor delivers. The leading lady of the Cleveland Opera House, Donna English who wowed me years ago Off-Broadway in Ruthless! and is still just as delicious to witness on stage today; Nancy Johnston as the matriarchal leader of the opera guild who has one of the best sight gags aided by costumer Wade Laboissonniere and garners plenty of laughs on her own; and the hotel bellhop who is obsessed with meeting Merelli and shines brightly each time Mark Price makes another entrance. I've seen other productions of this show (including the original on Broadway) and I don't always walk away feeling that everyone has risen to the same level of comedic chops set by the main players. That is certainly not true at the Paper Mill. Each member of this savvy cast adds much to the overall enjoyment felt by the audience.
Don Stephenson may be directing for the first time at Paper Mill, but it is obvious he is by no means a first time director. What a wonderful addition for New Jersey to witness his magic. He has worked the rhythm of this piece with his actors down to every timed-out slamming door to the pauses that are so important to farce. I was especially taken with his ability to allow the piece to breathe and not constantly drive it at the same pace and tone. He knows how to make each member of his ensemble shine while still keeping them moving forward on a conveyor belt of farcical genius. All of the mayhem occurring within the confines of a luxury suite recreated beautifully from his Broadway revival set by John Lee Beatty with five doors to add the percussion to the musicality of this show (with music coordination by Tom Helm).
When one has seen a show several times, it is sometimes hard to react to the jokes. But this cast had me laughing and I witnessed and heard plenty of people around me that were seeing it for the first time and savoring each comic morsel spit towards them - much as Saunders spits wax fruit out of his mouth. I also had the pleasure of sitting by the family of the assistant director and that proud family who flew in for the show aided in my overall enjoyment as I witnessed the evening through their eyes. The final two minutes of this show always garners huge belly laughs and this cast does not disappoint in their miniature version of all that has occurred. The cap on the evening was when the Olivier award-winning author Ken Ludwig joined the cast on stage for a final bow.
Don't let this one pass you by! Treat yourself to a laugh and get yourself to Milburn to catch this show while you can.
Lend Me a Tenor runs through March 10 and will be performed eight times a week, Wednesday through Sunday with matinee and evening performances. Tickets may be purchased by calling 973.376.4343 at the Paper Mill Playhouse Box Office at 22 Brookside Drive in Milburn, or online at www.papermill.org