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Review: LEND ME A TENOR Brings Classic Laughs at Saint Vincent Summer Theater

Review: LEND ME A TENOR Brings Classic Laughs at Saint Vincent Summer Theater

St Vincent Summer Theatre returns with this classic farce

When people think of summer stock, there's a mental image of college students and outdated hoofers, sometimes even a former TV star, sweating their way through outdated musicals involving straw hats and canes. This is usually pictured as happening either in a tent, a barn or some Catskills/Borscht-Belt dinner theatre. The truth is, summer stock is healthy, alive, well, and much more fun than decades of sitcom jokes make it out to be. Any Western Pennsylvania theatre fan is likely aware of our own summer stock institution, Saint Vincent Summer Theatre. The annual farce at Saint Vincent has been a beloved part of summer for theatregoers over the past 52 years (give or take a pandemic), and Lend Me a Tenor is a great way to bring back this long-standing tradition.

Playwright Ken Ludwig is undoubtedly the king of modern farce, with his enormous arsenal of constantly-produced plays (I saw his Murder on the Orient Express earlier this year at the Public). You can't swing a dead cat (or a dead opera singer) without hitting a Ken Ludwig production, but his comedic structuring is impeccably tight and always rewarding. Resident director Greggory Brandt has the cast of locals and national performers running like a well-oiled comedy machine.

The plot (newly revised by Ludwig from the classic version to replace Othello's blackface with Pagliacci's clown makeup) revolves around the Cleveland Opera Company's attempt to corral hard-drinking and lascivious opera star Tito Merelli (Daniel A. Krank) into fulfilling his obligation to perform the lead role in Pagliacci for a one-night-only gala. Opera manager Saunders (Lawrence Lesher) and his put-upon assistant and prospective son-in-law Max (Matt Sweeney) try to keep Merelli penned up in a hotel suite, but chaos ensues as Max's opera-loving fiancee Maggie (Abby Middleton), Merelli's fiery wife Maria (Synge Maher) and vampy opera diva Diana (Rebecca Soelberg) all converge, nearly at once, on the hotel room. Farcical things happen, people slam doors and hide, yadda, yadda yadda. It's all pretty much what you expect, until a series of unfortunate events leads to a drugged Tito Merelli, mistaken by his handlers for a corpse. That would be a spoiler, except it's literally in the title: the two men must scheme to cover up the apparent death of their star and find an impersonator to keep the show from cancellation.

In the lead role of Max, Matt Sweeney balances nebbishy sweetness and awkwardness with a growing since of confidence and passion; as he takes part in the coverup, eventually donning the makeup and costume of Pagliacci himself, he goes from nerd to superstar and begins to approach the world around him with a little more swagger. It's a shame we don't actually get to hear Sweeney sing until the final moments of the show, as he has a very pleasant tenor voice. His collaborator, the scheming Saunders, is played by Lawrence Lesher in a slow-burning comedic tour de force. Lesher's mix of gruff deadpan and building hysteria makes him a perfect comic antihero for a farce like this. The fact that his voice is a dead ringer for Tom Hanks adds to the fun when he finally explodes- it's like seeing Hanks as Max Bialystock. (Side note: Ken Ludwig almost certainly took inspiration from the classic film The Producers, and I'm pretty sure Mel Brooks then snatched a few jokes from Lend Me a Tenor for his musical adaptation of The Producers later.)

The supporting roles are drawn a bit broader overall. Daniel A. Krank is a blast as Morelli, but there's not much more to the role than "stereotypical spicy Italian," with shades of Aldolpho from The Drowsy Chaperone. The leading ladies are well-matched with each other: Abby Middleton gives Maggie a sweetness and classic ingenue quality which gradually thaws to reveal a passionate lover; by contrast, Rebecca Soelberg plays Diana as every inch the sexy vamp at first, but when she realizes she's been two-timed, a warm solidarity emerges instead of the expected hair-pulling rage. Kudos to Brandt for balancing these roles and performances so well, and to Ludwig for writing female characters with more punchlines and growth than many other classic farces.

Seeing a farce again at Saint Vincent, and exploring the extremely picturesque campus, was a treat. After years of COVID restrictions and theatre accomodations, it felt like coming home (not in the least because I am kinda-sorta an alum of St. V due to attending classes both there and at sister school Seton Hill). Here's to many more seasons of comedy and chaos!




From This Author - Greg Kerestan

A long-time BWW regular, Greg Kerestan is proud to join the staff of his favorite website. Greg is a graduate of Duquesne University and Seton Hill University, where he studied both theatre and English.... (read more about this author)


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