Eye on Theatre: Laughter to the Rafters By JOHN SIMON
Published in the Yonkers Tribune
Ken Ludwig’s farce, “Lend Me a Tenor, “ has just been revived at the White Plains Performing Arts Center—a very laudable move. Hitherto limited to musicals, this marks a branching out into straight plays to savory effect.
Under Jeremy Quinn’s snappy direction, the farce was played at the proper breakneck tempo, in a fine set by Jaye Beetem, snazzy costumes by Samantha Irons, and felicitous lighting by Andrew Gmoser. Some lesser performances were nicely compensated for by several excellent ones.
The plot concerns a performance of Verdi’s “Otello” by the fictitious Cleveland Grand Opera Company in 1934. A renowned Italian tenor, Tito Merelli, known as Il Stupendo, is flying in for the lead, but is not there for the dress rehearsal, and when he does come, his shrewish wife Maria leaves him with a phony farewell note. Distraught enough for an overdose of pills, he is knocked out completely and, to general alarm, given up for dead.
So Otello will be sung by Max, the young and eager assistant to the company’s fearsome manager, Saunders, a mere bathroom singer but familiar with the role, which he fearfully but also brazenly assumes. He manages to fool the Clevelanders into letting him get away with it.
But Tito finally wakes up, and pretty soon there are two Otellos in the identical comic makeup running wild and eliciting hilarious confusion. There is also a comic subplot involving Max and his silly girlfriend Maggie, daughter of the aforementioned Saunders, who rants as well as he dithers, and fearsomely disapproves of their involvement.
Then there is the swooning of various women—the snooty soprano Diana, the imperious Julia, chairman of the opera board, and the heroworshiping Maggie—all of whom want a piece of the great tenor, but understandably can’t tell the difference between two identical blackamoors whom they bafflingly pursue. This leaves everyone bewildered, including the jaunty Bellhop (no name), an opera buff whose adulation and cheekiness add to the chaos, which climaxes when jealous Maria returns and heightens the hysteria.
To Ludwig’s dazzlingly woven web of misapprehensions and mishaps, several cast members rise with full authority. Of the two Actors’ Equity members in the cast, Jorge Acosta manages Tito well enough, though Maria Silverman is excessively shrill as Maria. Non-Equity Joel Pellini is a terrific Max, whether grandly arrogant or sheepishly befuddled, Maggie Thompson is an aptly grandiose Julia, and Jeff Raab a puckishly impudent Bellhop.
Others are less adept. Thus Sheira Feuerstein’s mushmouthed and oddly listing Maggie, Logan Rose Nelms’s overly stilted Diana, and John Anthony Lopez’s insufficiently formidable Saunders. But so glorious is Ludwig’s comic writing that such drawbacks can be readily overlooked. The production fully deserves the tenner on which the show’s title is a pun; perhaps even two tenners, one for each Otello creating such heavenly havoc.
John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review,New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News. Mr. Simon holds a PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College.