A Base Tenor Triggers Laughs in Lend Me a Tenor at Beck Center

Lend Me a Tenor through April 26 at the Beck Center for the Arts 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, 216-521-2540, beckcenter.org

Come to Beck Center in April and see the Doors. No, not the renowned Jim Morrison rock band — they ain't getting back together anytime soon. We're talking about the six doors that fly open and slam shut during the farce Lend Me a Tenor by Ken Ludwig, now at the Beck Center for the Arts.

Of course, you need to bring along an industrial-strength dose of the medicine that powers all farces: a willing suspension of disbelief. Armed with that potent elixir, this bundle of silliness will tickle your funny bone in numerous places. One only wishes that Ludwig and director Scott Spence would have opted for some of the fiercely focused, go-for-broke mendacity that can elevate farce to another comedic level.

Set in our dear hometown of Cleveburg in 1934, an internationally famous opera singer is making his American debut in a performance of Verdi's Otello. He is the carousing and womanizing Italian tenor Tito Merelli (he's nicknamed Il Stupendo, presumably for his vocal prowess).

Of course, Tito is late showing up, throwing the local opera impresario Henry Saunders (a fulminating, grape-spitting John J. Polk) into a panicky frenzy. His assistant, the meek wannabe-famous tenor Max, tries to calm the waters. Fat chance. Once Tito and his spitfire wife Maria arrive in their luxe hotel suite (designed with tasteful Art Deco lusciousness by Don McBride), the convoluted architecture of the proceedings begins to take shape.

In brief: Tito has a tummy ache (he overindulges pasta as he does le belle donne) so Maria (hot-headed Carla Petroski) goads him into taking two tranquilizers. Not Tums? Of course not, this is a farce. To prove his devotion, Tito takes four of the pills. Meanwhile in the next room, Max is under orders from Saunders to make sure Tito get some sleep, so Max mixes some sleeping pills into Tito's wine.

Oh yes, then there are the Doors. Max's lukewarm girlfriend Maggie, who is Saunders' daughter, is all turned on to get close to the Italian stallion, so she hides in a closet, where Maria finds her, gets incensed that Tito is cheating on her, scribbles a goodbye note to her hubby and storms out another door. Drugged Tito stumbles in through still another door, woozily reads the note and, in despair, fails to kill himself before passing out. Max and Saunders find the collapsed Tito and leap to the conclusion that he's dead (it's time to take a swig of that elixir mentioned above) and concoct a plan.

Faced with a presumably dead star and an opera going up in a few hours, Saunders convinces Max to impersonate Tito by donning the tenor's Otello costume, including the dark makeup and frizzy wig. And as the costumed Max leaves for the theater, Tito suddenly sits up in bed.

The first act consists of a lot of set-up for the boffo second act, and as a result the first hour of Tenor is only mildly amusing. But Tito's co-star Diana (Leslie Andrews) appears in the hotel suite, trying to get a rise out of Tito so he'll give her career a goose. Then, along comes Julia (Lissy Gulick), the gray haired doyenne of the Opera Guild with her own sexy intentions and an irritating Tito fanboy and bellhop (Zac Hudak).

Finally, we have achieved enough bodies on stage for farcical lift-off. And the whole enterprise does get airborne, especially when both Maggie and Diana simultaneously bed a different version of Tito, in stereo, in different rooms. The conversations leading up to those encounters are so loaded with double entendres, you have to beat them off with a stick.

Although he doesn't have the girth of most operatic tenors, Matthew Wright as Tito has the pipes and knows how to land a punch line. As Max, Scott Esposito also sings well and manages to transform himself from a wimp into a confident Tito clone. When he finally gets it on with his beloved Maggie, as Tito, his joy is palpable. And thanks to a wry, understated performance by Emily Pucell Czarnota as Maggie, we actually begin to care for these kids.

Trouble is, many of the key characters (except Maria) don't have the cutthroat, go-for-broke intensity that can make farce really sparkle. At various times, Saunders, Tito, Max, Maggie and Diana go soft, acceding to others' needs instead of doubling down on their own selfishness. That sucks a bit of the air out of the premise.

Sure, there are appropriately lousy Italian-ah accents-ah and the expected overacting. But what the whole show needs is the headlong, furious rush that is displayed in the curtain call coda, as the actors reprise the plot, silent movie style. That gimmick reminds us that characters in a farce have to be insanely committed to their own agendas in order to truly satisfy.

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About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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