HIGH NOTES

What you want from a farce is to laugh at yourself and everyone else whose self-absorption gets them into trouble. And you want the protagonist, however ridiculous he is, to triumph in the end. The lively Lend Me a Tenor at the Aurora Fox is diverting, absurd fun with a nerdy protagonist who gets the opera career of his dreams and the girl he loves--all without the sappy sentimentality typical of romantic comedy.

Still, this is silly stuff--very, very silly. Saunders, the impresario of the Cleveland Grand Opera Company, waits anxiously for the arrival of the great tenor Tito Morelli, who will sing Otello for one night only before continuing on his whirlwind tour. Saunders's gopher, Max, dashes about making preparations and trying to coax the boss's daughter Maggie into marriage. But Maggie craves adventure, and Tito is the object of her itch.

But then, Tito is the main course for several women's appetites, including the trollop Julia (Kay Johnson). The big Italian is a nice guy with a perpetually jealous wife, and when the couple arrives at the hotel, their bickering escalates into shouts of "shut-a up, you pig-a," until Maria (played with gusto by Kathryn L. Gray) finds Maggie in the closet, jumps to the nearest conclusion and leaves her husband.

Now the tense Tito can't relax, so Max slips him a Mickey that's so effective everybody thinks he's dead. Who will sing Otello now? Why, Max, of course. And once in blackface makeup, nobody recognizes him for his mealymouthed self.

Max gives the performance of his life, of course, and Tito wakes up, dresses in an identical Otello costume and tries to get into the theater. Then a long, extended chase sequence begins in which the case of mistaken identity leads to a whole raft of sexual and social complications that allow everyone to make a fool of him- or herself.

Randall Walk's set design is charming Art Deco, very ritzy looking and perfect for the 1930s antics. The costumes are all charming except for the broadly comic Otello costumes--which, however unintentionally, have offensive racial overtones. The use of an Afro fright wig is crass, as is blackface that emphasizes reddened lips a la Al Jolson.

Liz Cox is delightful as the ambitious opera singer who thinks getting Tito in the sack will ensure a big-time career. She slithers on stage in an outrageous pink gown and throws a lot of calculated, knowing looks toward the audience--it's a kick. T. David Rutherford as Saunders has marvelous comic timing. His facial expressions change like wax under flame--big guy, big gestures, big fun.

As Tito, Joel L. Hudgins throws his considerable form around with all the grace and dignity of a real opera star. The accent is a bit thin here and there, but he's the warmest, most likable presence on stage. Suzanna Wellens as Maggie and Brian Kelly as Max make an unlikely but sweet couple, and William Berry checks in with a vivacious performance as the bellhop.

The production's best moment comes just before the final curtain call, when the entire play is mimed out in a racing staccato, all the actors literally running through the action, punctuating each scene with brief freezes in the action. It's so fast and funny, the rest of the production becomes an excuse for this manic final joke.

 
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