‘Lend Me A Tenor" is the hilarious farce now playing at the George Street Playhouse. Written by Ken Ludwig and directed by George Street’s artistic director, David Saint, it’s about the death onstage of a world-famous Italian operatic tenor brought in to star in the Cleveland Grand Opera Company’s gala opening night performance of "Otello." The scene is a hotel room in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1934.
The play opened on Broadway in 1989, won two Tony Awards, four Drama Desk Awards, and three Outer Circle Critics Awards. It has been translated into eight languages. See it and you’ll know why.
Here at George Street the actors and the direction are superb. The blocking and comic timing of the lines and actions are faultless. (They are summed up and highlighted by the inspired last-minute characters’ race around stage, in and out of its six doors, a brilliant, seemingly directorial, add-on to the play.) The actors play their parts broadly as the play calls for, the two Italians
(especially Maria) with the extravagant dramatic passion that adds to the comedy.
Henry Saunders, manager of the opera company and Maggie’s father (Peter Maloney), plays his anger and urgency in excited high pitch, speaking in capital letters, and looking apoplectic. (When he is calmer his complexion tones down to pink. How does he do that?) The two main pieces of furniture (the deep red upholstered couch and double bed) in this living room-bedroom suite are well utilized, the bed a platform for comedy (no, not just sex) in itself. This play is a romp, a laugh riot.
The play opens with the glamorous, beautiful, slim Maggie (Garrett Long) on stage in a long, filmy dress. An upright, restrained, slick-haired Max (Romain Fruge) joins her and asks her again to marry him; she declines. The first crisis comes when Saunders bursts in to say that the expected tenor, Tito Merelli (Patrick Quinn), called "Il Stupendo," is not on the train, as expected. Then Tito is announced to be in the lobby, and Saunders dispatches Max to watch over him, to keep him from wine and women. (To see Merelli, patrons have paid $50 a ticket, Saunders declares.)
Tito arrives into the hotel room needing a bathroom. He ate too much for lunch and needs to vomit. (A comic behind-the-scenes look at the formal grand opera.) Meanwhile his proud, dramatic, flamboyant wife Maria (Mary Testa) has had enough, swaggers into the bedroom to her make-up table, then leaves a note for Tito that she has left him forever. In the living room, Tito and Max become friends and Tito gives Max a singing lesson (first with shimmy exercise) and the two sing a duet aria. Tito is impressed and tells Max he sings "Good."
Sleepy, Tito says he needs to sleep. In the bedroom he finds Maria’s note. Devastated, he resolves to kill himself and takes his whole vial of pills.
Saunders finds him dead but says he cannot announce an understudy: the audience would demand their money back, and they would stone an understudy. Instead, Max, who knows all the words to the arias, puts on the Otello costume and after much trembling finally agrees to impersonate Tito. (Seeing him disguised in Otello’s black face, the audience would never know.) At the end of the first act, in the emptied rooms, Tito awakens.
The second act compounds the hilarity. Tito can’t get into the theater as himself, it’s reported, and the police are called in the melee. Julia (Alis Elias), chairman of the Opera Guild, comes up from the reception. Max as Tito has sung the role of Otello marvelously, Maggie is won over and says (to the Otello she thinks is Tito) "I want to have your children." He agrees. Otello/Max seduces Maggie in the living room and his excellently done blackface rubs off on her, while Diana sheds her flimsy red dress for the real Tito in the bedroom. To compound the clash Maria returns to give Tito one more chance. The two Otellos meet, but the confrontation is amiable. No jealousy. They’re
friends. Max negotiates more operatic roles with Saunders. Max has won himself a tenor’s career.
Don’t look for much character development here. just sidesplitting laughter. The play has the hallmarks of farce: misunderstandings, confusions, mistaken identities, avoiding recognition, slamming doors, hiding in a closet, and sexual innuendoes.
The costumes are laudable: the gossamer-like dresses of Maggie and the equally comely blonde soprano Diana (Alison Fraser) are eye-catching lovely. Diana, a late-in-the-play onstage arrival, wants (the seeming) Tito to introduce her to his friends in New York. Then, throughout, there’s the eager, intrusive, singing bellhop (Michael Cyril Creighton) desperate for an autograph.
But special kudos to the costumer (Hugh Hanson) who has designed a lavish, gorgeous black and gold costume, high boots, and large fluffy black curly wig for Otello. Both the larger Tito and the slimmer Max are indistinguishable in the stunning costume.
Among the many witty laugh-out loud lines in the play here’s Maria’s to the costumed Otello/ Max whom she sees is not her husband.
"Who are you?" she demands.
" A friend of the family," he answers. "Who are you?"
"The family," she says curtly.
Set in 1934, when men wore tuxedos to the opera and women wore long gowns, the production’s excellent set design reflects the Art Deco of the period.
The friend I went to opening night with had seen a preview of the play here earlier in the week but wanted to see "Tenor" again. "I tell everybody to go see it," she said. "Everybody needs a good laugh."
Lend Me a Tenor, Ken Ludwig’s comedy about show business, at George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Through March 6. $28 to $56. 732-246-7717