A Farce of Many Parts (and Darting Otello Look-Alikes)
By Anita Gates
For The New York Times
Published: February 3, 2008
Jim Poulos and Catia Ojeda make such a cute young couple in Ken Ludwig’s farce “Lend Me a Tenor” that you really want things to work out for them. As the mild-mannered Max, an unappreciated opera underling, and the super-pretty Maggie, his reluctant girlfriend (she thinks she loves him, but she doesn’t hear bells), they give real heart to the John W. Engeman Theater production, which is itself as cute as a button.
In the play, directed by B T McNicholl with an enormous sense of fun, Max finally gets his chance to impress Maggie. Or rather to knock her socks off, which obviously is what it’s going to take. The proceedings are never fully hilarious, but they are consistently amusing.
It is 1934, and the Cleveland Grand Opera Company is very fortunate to have an internationally famous guest star, Tito Merelli (Neal Benari), appearing in the title role of Verdi’s “Otello” that night. But, oops, the great Mr. Merelli is suddenly indisposed, possibly dead and, in either case, will not be able to perform. (Could the pills that someone put in his wine have anything to do with this?)
Max’s boss, Saunders (Doug Stender), is beside himself, thinking of the lost revenue, which will be monumental. The only solution is for Max to go on in Tito’s place. Since Otello is a role often played with a wig and dark brown makeup, and since Max has a magnificent singing voice, he may actually get away with it. True, Mr. Poulos and Mr. Benari have completely different body types, but that’s the sort of thing that farce forces its audiences to accept. (Luckily, many American theatergoers grew up watching “I Love Lucy” reruns and have been trained to believe that even husbands and wives can’t recognize each other if one of them puts on a wig or pastes on a mustache.)
That is the setup, which takes most of Act I to develop. In Act II, which takes place a few hours later, after the performance, the real fun begins. There are look-alike Otellos darting in and out of rooms, creating several instances of mistaken identity. There are young women dressed only in towels and diamonds or only in their skivvies, and, as is required by the genre, there is a lot of slamming of doors. Court Watson’s great-looking set, a 1930s hotel suite, has five doors, as well as one open doorway, and the characters make good use of them with superb timing.
The actors look fabulous entering and exiting, thanks to Robin L. McGee’s costume design (the women’s prewar evening dresses and coats are terribly glamorous) and Mark Adam Rampmeyer’s hair and wig design.
“Lend Me a Tenor” clearly pays homage to the Marx Brothers comedies. There is even an older-woman Margaret Dumont character, Julia (Celia Tackaberry). If I remember correctly, though, the stout, most often wealthy characters played by Dumont were horrified by rowdy misbehavior or sexual suggestiveness. Ms. Tackaberry’s Julia appears to relish double entendre and the idea of a little fling. When Tito kisses her hand, she is thrilled and makes her comment as clear and pointed as possible: that she really, really wishes she could think of something she could do for him.
There is a comic bellhop (Seth Rudetsky), too, who gets a musical moment in the sun.
Add Tito’s passionate wife, Maria (Michele Ragusa), and Diana (Christianne Tisdale), an ambitious, sexually available blonde, and you have the well-defined cast of eight.
In the 1989 Broadway production, directed by Jerry Zaks, Philip Bosco stood out as Saunders and won a Tony Award as a result. In the Northport show, Mr. Stender’s Saunders is clearly the boss, but in terms of personality, he’s just one of the gang. Maybe it’s just as well, since his low-key, generally bluster-free performance results in a more balanced ensemble.
All the characters seem to be on the same wavelength, which is a tribute to Mr. McNicholl’s direction. The dialogue is deliberately silly. (Diana, offering Champagne: “Is Mumm all right?” Tito: “She’s fine, thank you.”) The humor is deliberately slapstick. (Reading an upsetting note from Maria, Tito attempts hara-kiri with a Chianti bottle, then tries to stab himself with a fork.) The Italian accents could belong to organ grinders. Sex is symbolized by bare legs wiggling in the air. The precurtain-call coda is done silent-movie style, and it’s adorable.