The Cleveland Orchestra is hosting a gala performance of Verdi’s Otello, and the star attraction is famed Italian tenor Tito Merelli, whose participation is sure to fatten the orchestra’s coffers. The only problem: It’s time for the afternoon rehearsal, and Tito hasn’t arrived. Saunders, the general manager, frets; his starstruck daughter, Maggie, daydreams; and assistant Max — who’s in love with Maggie — fusses about the stage, trying to keep things together. Tito eventually arrives with his wife, Maria, who hates his flirtatious tendencies and upon entering their hotel room instantly unleashes an Italian opera-esque storm of rage, passion and grief.
Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me a Tenor, written in the late 1980s, is a true farce, complete with slamming doors, mistaken identities and characters racing about at cross-purposes. Somehow, two Tito Merellis end up on the scene, each accused of the other’s deeds and misdeeds, and there’s a steady build to a satisfying and hilarious climax. Despite having won both an Olivier Award and a Tony, this isn’t the cleverest or most ingenious farce I’ve seen, and the fuzzy black wigs that go along with the Otello costume and are worn by both Titos in the mixup are questionable in this time of heightened racial tension. But the acting is energetic and capable, and the 1934 setting gives Miners Alley costume designer Crystal McKenzie an opening to create some truly gorgeous costumes for the gorgeous ladies of the cast.
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We’re guessing that director Warren Sherrill, who created acclaimed versions of such complex and significant dramas as Euripides’s Medea, Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem and Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance at the now regrettably departed Edge Theater, enjoyed taking on this light-as-air comedy. His comic timing and bits of business are both excellent...and at least he avoided blackface.
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A couple of other things increase this show’s pleasures. Unlike most farces, it has a heart. No matter how ridiculous they both are — and how ridiculous the situations they find themselves in — Max and Maggie really do have feelings for each other, even though Maggie only discovers hers late in the game. Also, while opera is hardly front and center, we do hear fragments of some magnificent recordings as we enter the theater, during the intermission and now and then during the action itself. Scott Rathbun, who gives a solid and heartwarming performance as the real Tito, has a very strong and pleasing baritone; as he sings a few bars, you sometimes find yourself wishing the action would stop so that you could hear the rest of the duet or aria. Drew Horwitz’s hapless Max is sometimes just a touch too jittery, but he’s endearing overall. While he’s a tenor, his voice is anything but operatic, which makes it hard for us to believe that Horwitz could give a performance that would fool or entrance opera lovers: Cleveland may not be London or New York, but it’s not exactly an artistic backwater. But believability isn’t the point of farce.
Almost all of the performances are over the top, as required, though now and then someone edges a little too close to cartoonish. But the general volume and mayhem do allow Jeffrey Atherton’s more realistic Saunders to come close to walking away with the evening. He’s convincing as a member of the town’s upper crust watching his precious opera company crumble, anxious and angry and completely without conscience. When he does dissolve into the general madness and goes down on his knees in hand-kissing suppliance, it’s extra funny, and the actor’s imposing height adds to the humor. Missy Moore provides a good balance of crazy and sort of sweet as Maggie. The girl may be a ditz, but she genuinely adores music, swoons for the man who can make it, and finally falls satisfyingly into the arms of devoted Max. Eryn Carman’s Maria is so utterly loud and crazy, so outrageous a stereotype of the stormy, passionate Italian woman of Hollywood myth, that she makes the role work, unleashing a tsunami of sound and fury that sweeps away all obstacles and any possible objections.
This funny, silly, pleasurable production makes for a perfect summer evening.
Lend Me a Tenor, presented by Miners Alley Playhouse through August 19, 1224 Washington Avenue, Golden, 303-935-3044, minersalley.com.