BWW Reviews: Connecticut Cabaret's LEND ME A TENOR Hits Some High Notes
Back in 1985, I was a volunteer usher at the American Stage Festival in Milford, N.H. The theatre was premiering a new comedy by Ken Ludwig entitled Opera Buffa. A knockabout farce in the traditional door-slamming/mistaken identities mode, I remember the show being a naughty riot. What a delight, almost 30 years later, to revisit the piece, since retitled Lend Me a Tenor, now in performance through May 4 at Berlin's Connecticut Cabaret Theatre.
The great thing about farce is that, when well-directed, it can be timeless. Hiding a scantily-clad nymphette in a closet when the battle-axe of a wife arrives unexpectedly always gets everyone riled up. Hiding a dead body that refuses to stay hidden is a guaranteed laugh. A wisecracking butler or maid (or, in this case, a bellhop) can steal the show. Lend Me a Tenor mines all of these classic farcical machinations, mainly to good effect.
The plot involves the imminent arrival of the world-renowned Italian operatic tenor Tito Merelli. Hired by a Cleveland opera company to star in a gala performance of Verdi's Otello, Merelli represents a calculated risk due to his reputation for drinking and womanizing. Max, a mousy, nervous underling at the opera company, has been tasked with babysitting "Il Stupendo" until he gets onstage.
Saunders, the Bialystock to Max's Bloom, is the always-about-to-blow-a-gasket opera producer who helps concoct a crazy scenario to have the show go on when, inevitably, things go awry. Add to the mix, the aforementioned pushy bellhop and a quartet of riotous women: a star-struck fiancée, a horny opera guild doyenne, a conniving diva, and Merelli's equally operatic wife - and boom! Farce is served. The play is a hair talkier than it needs to be and a subplot about rotting shrimp backstage goes nowhere, but Ludwig's piece is a worthy vehicle for laughs.
Director Kris McMurray keeps things chugging along, occasionally hitting the breakneck pacing that the best farces require at their climax, while finding the big laughs in the work. One of the challenges of presenting the piece on the Connecticut Cabaret's modest stage is the lack of space required to really get the cast running. The stage is subdivided into a hotel suite's two main spaces: a sitting room and a bedroom.
Aside from the door separating the two rooms, each of the rooms has another three doors. Because six full-sized doors would leave no room for walls on the set, McMurray opts for six narrow doors, maybe two feet apart. This means characters racing in and out of rooms and door slamming is hard to achieve at the required breakneck pacing. Because there isn't a lot of room for extras once the cast and doors are onstage, the elegance of the hotel setting is undercut, as well. Part of the joy of Lend Me a Tenor is how the low comedy is played out in high-class, high-society surroundings.
The cast, however, is game for the task set before them in Ken Ludwig's script. Joe Autuoro plays Max, the nebbishy gofer who secretly harbors his own operatic ambitions. His is a charming portrayal filled with hand-wringing and some lovely singing. One big distraction in Autuoro's performance is the actor's propensity to look down and away from his castmates when he is not speaking. A lot of acting is in the reacting and it felt as if Autuoro didn't quite know what to do with his self at times.
Similarly, Max's love interest, Kaite Corda, gives a winsome (and randy) performance. It's a tricky part as she is the sweet ingénue surrounded by some out-sized gorgons. Corda is lovely in the role, but seemed to not know what to do with her hands, so they kept getting clasped in front of her.
As Saunders, Tom Roohr is a comic steamroller, spitting out his funny lines in a way to make everyone run for cover. Opposite of Autuoro's performance, Roohr delivers many of his lines directly at the audience, when the rest of the actors aim at each other. This made his character more direct, but again, distracting at times.
As the titular singer and his testy wife, Lenny Fredericks and Louise DeChesser, threaten to not loan anyone a tenor, but steal the show. Employing an exaggerated "I'ma gonna keel you!"-Italian accents, the two plug into the heart of the genre and chew the scenery appropriately. James J. Moran was an audience favorite as the high-strung bellhop. Rounding out the cast, as equally naughty opera queens, Melinda Learned and JoAnne Callahan Roohr both are deliciously deluded.
All in all, despite misgivings, the audience lapped up the comedy and rewarded it with laughs. With a little tightening up of the pacing and ironing out performance quirks, Connecticut Cabaret will have no problem lending anyone this particular tenor.
Photo of Lenny Fredericks and Louise DeChesser courtesy of Connecticut Cabaret Theatre.