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Rob McClure as Max, Ron Orbach as Saunders. Photo by Roger Mastroianni

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“They’re Back!” – Ron Orbach and Rob McClure discuss A Comedy of Tenors

By Ted Otten | For The Times of Trenton

You can tell how special a play must be by how many theatres want to present it, and that's the case with Ken Ludwig's sequel to "Lend Me a Tenor" called "A Comedy of Tenors" which is now running at the Matthews Theatre of Princeton's McCarter Theatre Center through November 1.

This art deco production directed by Stephen Wadsworth has sets by Charlie Corcoran and costumes by William Ivy Long and was chosen as the opening attraction of the 100th Anniversary Season of the Cleveland Playhouse where it ran from September 5 to October 3 and drew positive reviews. Now, after some fine tuning by the author and director, it's in Princeton following Emily Mann's steamy production of Tennessee Williams' "Baby Doll."

You may remember that famous screen line: "They're back!" That's mostly the case with this play which happens two years after the first play closes but in Paris, not in less infamous Cleveland. A few of Ludwig's minor characters have disappeared; society matron Julia, whose gown was described as making "her look like the Chrysler Building," has been left behind along with one pesky bellboy opera fan. A libidinous and troublemaking Italian diva from Cleveland has been replaced for Paris by a Russian one, and Tito Merelli, opera's long-time superstar and lust magnet, now has a younger rival in a rising American tenor named Carlo Nucci.

What brings those new and familiar faces together is "the concert of the century" staged by Henry Saunders (played by Ron Orbach) who has abandoned Cleveland politics for concert management. He's signed the three greatest tenors in the world for a gala evening, but since the play is a farce, everyone knows things can't and won't go well.

Cancellation is the nastiest word in the opera world, and one of the superstars scheduled for the concert, Swedish tenor Jussi Bjorling, bows out. Mimi (Kristen Martin), the daughter of Tito (Bradley Dean) and the ever volatile Maria (Antoinette LaVecchia), is having a passionate affair with Carlo (Bobby Conte Thornton), which enrages the explosive Tito, and Tito also thinks Maria has been cheating on him, and he's ready to walk out too. Financial ruin for Saunders, who is now the father-in-law of the problem solver Max (Rob McClure), seems certain.

Will Max step in and save the day just as he did last time? McClure isn't saying.

"There have to be surprises. Certain things like slamming doors, mistaken identities, disguises and confrontations, are expected, but the unexpected is what can be most delightful and hilarious. After the Cleveland run, there have been bits of fine tuning here and there, but not much was needed because the play is so well put together. It rushes forward like a car packed with everything we need, but now it goes even faster.

"In Cleveland, one favorite moment was the very end. We often got standing ovations, but we didn't see them stand up because the curtain had closed. When it opened again with the audience standing, we had a further surprise for them. But don't ask me what that is," said McClure who also delights in one of the operatic moments: three tenors singing the Act One drinking song from Verdi's "La Traviata" as well as all of the play's final twenty minutes which is "a true joy to do; it's like riding on a runaway train."

McClure, who has never played Max in the earlier play but would now like to give it a try, loves the physical comedy too, and he, like the rest of the cast, is required to do a great deal of it. He credits one of his earlier roles, playing Charlie Chaplin in Broadway's "Chaplin: The Musical" which earned him a Tony Award nomination in 2013, with helping him develop comedic skills. That show, in one of its pre-Broadway incarnations, also introduced him to Ron Orbach who plays Saunders.

"It's so easy to work with him because we'd worked so well together before, and we're sort of the Abbott and Costello of the evening. Max's relationship with Saunders is different this time. He married Saunders' daughter, and they're about to make Saunders a grandfather. After successfully impersonating Tito in the first play, Max is beginning an operatic career too, and his father-in-law's position as an impresario would put him in a position to help Max take steps up in the opera world, to give him a break-out moment, but he's still looked on by Saunders as something of an errand boy," said McClure.

Ron Orbach hasn't played Saunders in the previous play either, but he'd like to, and he suggests that there's a likelihood of doing both pays in repertory with common casts. He's aware that both Philip Bosco and Tony Shaloub played Saunders in the earlier play on Broadway and that creating Saunders' later identity is a huge responsibility.

"Saunders is a kind of cousin to two of the people I played in the Broadway and tour productions of Neil Simon's 'Laughter on the 23rd Floor' because he's capable of making known in very obvious ways that he's experiencing frustration and anger, but he has so much riding on this concert, you probably can't blame him. Like many people who have power, he likes to use it and show it. He's difficult to like because the people he picks on, like Max, are so much more sympathetic," said New Jersey-born Ron Orbach who appeared on Broadway in 2013 in the unique musical "Soul Doctor" and can be seen in such films as "Love Crimes" and "Clueless" as well as numerous TV series episodes.

"Although it doesn't often look it, Max and I are really a team, trying to overcome all the obstacles that turn up because we both want this very special concert to happen," said Orbach who attended Rider College and attended performances at McCarter as well as stepping in for an indisposed actor at Bucks County Playhouse in "Tea and Sympathy."

"I'll admit that it's kind of fun to play a character who rants, screams and shouts, but I know those are not appealing character traits. When I first read the script though, imagining myself in the part, I laughed out loud the whole time."

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