Ask Someone to Lend You a Ticket to LEND ME A TENOR
In her curtain speech on opening night of Lend Me a Tenor, now playing at the Georgetown Palace, Artistic Director Mary Ellen Butler called playwright a Ken Ludwig a "comedic genius," and explained why she encouraged director Lannie Hilboldt to tackle the play. Hilboldt, a professional musician, has served as Musical Director on several productions and made his directorial debut with Georgetown Palace's recent production of Always, Patsy Cline. Until now, Hilboldt had not directed a play, but Butler urged him to direct Lend Me a Tenor because his musical ability would serve him well in finding the timing and rhythm of Ludwig's farce. "Music is math," Butler said to the opening night audience, "and comedy is math."
Ms. Butler, I couldn't say it better. Hiring a novice to direct a play can be risky, but when the play is Lend Me a Tenor and the director is a musical theater pro like Lannie Hilboldt, the risks are nonexistent. Rarely are a play and director as in sync as this.
Anyone who's seen any of Ludwig's other works, particularly his hits Moon Over Buffalo (which The Palace will produce later this season) or the Gershwin musical Crazy for You, may recognize his trademark flair for absurdity and slapstick. The comedy of errors and mistaken identities begins with the arrival of opera star Tito Merelli to Cleveland, Ohio. The great Merelli will be making his American debut at the Cleveland Opera later that night (I guess The Met wasn't interested). Henry Saunders, manager of the Cleveland Opera, has entrusted his mousey assistant Max to attend to Tito and ensure that he makes it to the theater in time for opening night of Otello, in which Tito will play the title role. Without giving away too much of the fun of the first act, Tito eventually takes a couple sleeping pills and lays down for a nap before the evening's performance. Saunders and Max erroneously believe that Tito is dead and decide that Max, who's always dreamed of being an opera star and knows the part by heart, will stand in for Tito. After all, it's Otello, and in costume, wig, and blackface, Max could pass for the beloved tenor. Naturally, the "dead" Tito wakes up, gets into costume, and hilarity ensues.
The show demands that we suspend plenty of disbelief, but with Hilboldt at the helm, it's easy to forgive and overlook the implausibilities of Ludwig's play. The pacing is brisk, and the staging involves plenty of over the top schtick that verges on cartoony. While many plays would suffer from such zany escapades, the antics serve this door-slamming farce well (as does the many doored set by Ron Watson). The curtain call, in which the cast silently recaps the entire play in the course of two minutes, is sidesplittingly funny.
The entire eight person cast is just as well suited to the silly comedy as their director. Marsha Sray is a scene-stealer as Tito's long suffering wife, Maria. Constantly irritated by her husband's philandering ways, she angrily growls her lines as her fury explodes in a way that is both outrageous and rib-tickling. Georgetown Palace favorite Nikki Bora is wonderfully funny as Julia, the Chairwoman of the Cleveland Opera. Bora plays the role as a glamorous vamp who, despite being a woman of a certain age, still has it. As strong as the rest of the cast is, Bora is the only one who receives entrance and exit applause, and she more than deserves it. As Tito, Joseph Burg David displays his mastery at physical comedy, particularly in one sequence where he attempts to commit suicide with a variety of non-lethal objects like a fork and a wine bottle. With his sing-songy line delivery, golden tenor voice, and great ability at slapstick, Joseph Burg David gives an impeccable performance. Of course, every farce needs a straight man, and Michael Dominguez fulfills that role without being swallowed by the ridiculousness around him. As Max, Dominguez is aptly shy and timid, but he still has quite a gift for comedy, especially in the second act which gives him far more material to work with.
It's no surprise that Lend Me a Tenor earned a standing ovation and rapturous applause on opening night. The comedy deserves the same reception that a grand opera would receive.