Jim Poulos and Neal Benari from the John W. Engeman TheaterÂ’s production of

Lend Me a Tenor


'Lend Me a Tenor' at Northport's Engeman

January 23, 2008

Although the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport set the standard for Long Island theater comfort the night it opened in May, it had yet to stage an unambiguously satisfying hit.

Until now. With "Lend Me a Tenor," the Engeman has done it, nailing one of the toughest genres to pull off. Ken Ludwig's 1989 Tony-winning comedy is one of only two classic farces by a living playwright, the other being Michael Frayn's frenetic "Noises Off" (Sardines anyone?)

Perhaps the only flaw in Ludwig's fine mess of a play - think Molière as interpreted by Laurel and Hardy - is the obvious setup. The Italian tenor of the title has brought along two identical costumes for his one-night stand at the Cleveland Grand Opera. But so what if we know right away where this is going? As directed by BT McNicholl, we're too entertained to care, even if we've seen it all before.

The year is 1934, handsomely reflected in Court Watson's impeccable art deco set, laying out an upscale hotel suite with side-by-side rooms with five doors for well-timed slamming. Tito "Il Stupendo" Morelli is the Luciano Pavarotti of his time. His scheduled performance of Verdi's "Otello" has Cleveland's upper crust all atwitter. Especially opera director Henry Saunders and daughter Maggie. Never mind that Max, the company gofer, has proposed to her; she's ready to throw herself at the tenor. Also anxious to meet Il Stupendo are his Desdemona opposite, a star-struck bellhop and Cleveland's leading dowager.

The superstar arrives late with his wife, who suspects the worst when she finds Maggie hiding in the bedroom closet. The groupie-weary Maria leaves her husband an I'm-outta-here note. In response, Tito swallows a fistful of pills only to be slipped several more by Max in a Chianti chaser. When Tito passes out on the bed, Max and Henry, unable to wake him, mistake his wife's note for a suicide scrawl. Max, who despite his mousy demeanor, has quite a set of pipes, "borrows" Tito's Otello costume (Robin McGee's caped design) and dark face paint to make his opera debut as an impostor. Meanwhile, Tito awakes, dons an identical costume and runs to the opera house, where he's thwarted by a cop. Later, both Otellos return to the suite where varied admirers in varied states of dress or undress press their intentions on the star and stand-in.

Neal Benari careens between entitlement and bewilderment as Tito, while Jim Poulos as Max finds the balance between nerdy and determined. Catia Ojeda as Maggie avoids ingenue cliches that are the pitfall of her daughter/groupie/girlfriend role. Christianne Tisdale as the soprano career-climber cuts a fine seductive figure and Michelle Ragusa as the jealous wife huffs with convincing contempt, contrasting Celia Tackaberry's moneybags fawning. Doug Stender is at loose ends as the frantic opera director. Bellhop Seth Rudetsky delivers the champagne with bubbly impertinence.

A toast to the Engeman, where you can enjoy it at your seat.

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