BWW Reviews: LEND ME A TENOR Opens Fulton Season With Laughter
If there's anything that will make sure you grow up with a sense of humor, it's being from Pennsylvania Dutch country. Enter Ken Ludwig, one of America's great playwrights and masters of farce, a York County native. And if there's any area of the arts that can use a skewering, it's opera and the many pretensions that its devotees heap upon it. LEND ME A TENOR, Ludwig's multiple-Tony-winning farce, does just that, in profusion. From swooning over lead tenors to excessive costuming and makeup, from scheming divas to grandiose post-performance receptions, nothing's sacred to Ludwig except, thankfully, the music itself.
Charles Abbott's production of Ludwig's riotous tale of crazy, mixed-up tenors is on stage at the Fulton, and it's done right from the set on up. William Mohney's lovingly-designed hotel suite set is as much a character as the cast, and here it's given the respect it deserves. It's a classic grand hotel suite, with parquetry, suitably ostentatious furnishings, and a real sense of solidity. (Far too many productions of farces have sets insufficiently designed and constructed for the racing of feet and slamming of doors that the genre contains.) If the audience doesn't want to check in to this hotel themselves, no hotel will suit them.
The starring role of Max, the gofer of the Cleveland Grand Opera and would-be singer, is played by Jeremiah James, last seen at the Fulton as Javert in LES MISERABLES. It's a total switch from self-assured, righteous gendarme to bumbling, semi-inept assistant to the general manager; audiences who saw the closing musical from last season may not recognize this presumable wimp. James has done a truly nice turn from musical tragedy to farce, with some well-played physical comedy to add to it. Tony Lawson plays Tito Morelli, the greatest opera singer ever to live (if one is to believe the women of the Cleveland Grand Opera), with more than suitable braggadocio and the arrogant swagger of a man who knows he's an idol to others. His "I want to kill myself!" moment in the first act is worth the price of admission.
What's also worth the price of admission in this production is that both James and Lawson sing. Far too many productions of LEND ME A TENOR use recorded music in the first act when Tito and Max sing; here, the performance is genuinely live, and it shows. It's not Verdi live from the Met, but it's live, and it's not at all shabby.
Mike Boland as opera general manager Saunders has some genuinely funny physical comedy with Max and with Tito's presumed corpse, and the dyspeptic demeanor of any less than toweringly successful impresario. He's at his very best when planning funerals rather than opera productions. His daughter, Maggie, is in love with Max but secretly craving flinging herself upon Tito, whose irresistibility to women is as great as his vocal talent. Played by Jillian Gottlieb, she's the picture of would-be non-innocence. SuEllen Estey is Julia, the opera guild president, herself anxious to fling herself upon Tito. And then there's Diana, the ingénue and would-be diva of the Cleveland Grand Opera, who's willing to do just about anything, including Tito, to get on stage at the Metropolitan Opera. Vanessa Morosco gives Diana the edge that the part needs - ambitious, scheming, but not evil.
Emily Zacharias is delightful as the long-suffering but ridiculously patient Maria Morelli, wife of Tito, who is used to being married to a finicky singer and equally used to ignoring the hysterical women who want to throw themselves on him.
Of his role in this production, as Max, James says, "It's a great role, I've always wanted to play it - but I had no idea that the vocal range was so high! Hitting those high notes was a challenge. But working with Tony's been amazing. He's played Tito before, but not quite like this. We've been having so much fun playing our timing against each other."
Boland notes, "It's a hard show to work on at the beginning of rehearsals. Getting the timing down is everything. And the timing changes with the audience, too."
Director Abbott agrees. "The timing's changed from the previews to the opening, and you have to judge your timing each night against the audience reactions."
It's a show that might as well be choreographed, though it's not a musical - farce depends upon timing, and upon rapid movement around, and on and off, stage. There are only a few false notes in the movement here, and that's almost unavoidable in a show this rapidly paced. It's fast, funny, bawdy, and more than slightly ridiculous - it's classic farce.
Will Tito save the Cleveland Grand Opera? Will he die onstage - or otherwise? Will Maggie get her man... or is it men? Will Max ever get his big break? Those are the questions of the day in LEND ME A TENOR, and they're all answered by the end. On the other hand, the question of whether the shrimp at the reception are toxic... well, you'll have to judge that for yourself. You can do that at the Fulton through the 26th. For tickets and information, call 717-397-7425 or visit www.thefulton.org.