note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi
Tito Merelli….Robert Saoud
DO NOT READ THIS REVIEW – get thee at once to the box office of the Lyric Stage! You may groan, "Not AGAIN!" Yes, I cry: AGAIN! For Thalia, Muse of Comedy, now resides at the Lyric in all her glory, and its production of Ken Ludwig's LEND ME A TENOR threatens to be this year's most joyous theatrical event. Run; call; SEDUCE; do whatever you can to get your tickets – and prepare to laugh like Niagara overflowing.
The year is 1934; the scene, an Art Deco hotel suite. Saunders, General Manager of the Cleveland Grand Opera Company, has brought to his fair city the world-famous Italian tenor Tito Merelli ("Il Stupendo") to sing the role of Verdi's Otello. He assigns Max, his assistant (and aspiring tenor), to look after the high-strung womanizer until curtain time, but when Merelli is suddenly indisposed, guess who must "black up" and go on in his place? Stir in assorted zanies – Maggie, Max's Merelli-mad girlfriend (and Saunders' daughter); Maria, Merelli's jealous wife; Diana, a soprano sleeping her way up the ladder; Julia, the dowager Chairwoman of the Opera Guild; and Bellhop, the inevitable bellhop – and Georges Feydeu meets the Marx Brothers for a merry Night at the Opera. It would be easy to dismiss Mr. Ludwig's farce as a clever pastiche of Hollywood screwball comedies of the 1930s, but Mr. Ludwig's sense of theatre is so good, and his sense of humor (part wit/part schtick) is so funny that his TENOR can stand – and walk – on its own (what a superior child it is when compared to his disappointing MOON OVER BUFFALO). Act Two has its bugs: the two leads – Saunders and Max – disappear for stretches at a time and the plot wanders in their absence, and there are two simultaneous couplings (Max/Maggie and Merelli/Diana) that are out of sync with the Hayes Code of 1930s comedy. (Now, that would make an interesting discussion: when setting a play in an era other than one's own, should one follow that era's conventions or put back in what censorship left out? To reinvent said era or create something that can slip in among the classics unnoticed? Green Room, anyone?)
But who am I to cry "bugs", when Mr. Ludwig brilliantly succeeds at making people laugh? And he DOES; he DOES. I would have loved to have snapped a photo of the audience I sat with – each open-mouthed face, the Mask of Comedy itself. And, ah, the pleasure of hearing wave upon wave of hearty, life-affirming laughter; not snickers or groans at something "dumb" or "gross". This is a show EVERYONE can enjoy – and your mother may laugh the loudest of all (mine would). Some folks may take offense at "Italian" talking like Chico Marx ("atta's matta for you") or Max in blackface passing as Merelli as Otello (i.e., "they all look alike"). But Mr. Ludwig's humor is sunny, not mean, and should he be attacked on these grounds, he can always point to the era (the 1930s) from which he borrows (talk about stereotypes! Franklin Pangborn? Stepin Fetchit?).
I rarely laugh while watching Comedy (I'm a crier, not a laugher); yet, there I was at the Lyric, holding my sides and barking along with everyone else. Between Mr. Ludwig, director Jack Neary and his superb octet of clowns, there are dozens of hilariously insane bits, including: Max and Merelli engaging in a battle of Slap Hands; Saunders' repeated attempts to strangle "Il Stupendo" in his bed; Julia's butterfly exit being truncated by Saunders shoving her out the door; Max bursting out of the bathroom only to be yanked back inside by the towel-clad Diana – twice; the Merelli-Julia love scene, where they tenderly bounce words off each other's tonsils; and the end of Act One, where music and image beautifully come together to coax a collective "Ah!" from its audience. No doubt, you'll have your own list of favorites….
Set designer Robert M. Russo has come up with quite the obstacle course: a half-wall from noon to six divides the playing area in two. Stage right is the sitting room; stage left, the bedroom (the feet of the audience in the front row touch the set's rug). There are five doors in all (Slam! Slam! Slam! Slam! Slam!) with a dragonfly motif carved in their upper left corners, and the front room sports the damnedest-looking couch I've ever seen: a black wire THING with cushions, long and narrow; whoever sits on it becomes an hors d'oeuvre on a tray. 'Tis a cliché to say that the best direction is the one which you never notice, but I applaud Mr. Neary for choreographing his cast through this tight, tight little playing area without bumping into furniture or each other – and making the craziness seem perfectly natural, almost nonchalant. (Playing farce is a tricky art: the characters may heat up but the actors within cannot.)
Though this year is not even half over, I have been fortunate to have seen numerous shining ensembles, and this TENOR's cast is easily, easily at the top of the list. If I must single out certain individuals for their excellence, they would be Richard Snee as Sanders and Robert Saoud as Merelli. First of all, they look and act in period: Mr. Snee, handsome and dapper in his tuxedo, and a master of the Slow Burn (I last saw him as the sleazy Eddie Lawrence in SHEAR MADNESS and at first couldn't believe this was the same actor); and Mr. Saoud, with his "Italian" shape and accent, very much the image of an opera singer from the days when Voice, not Appearance, made one a Star. Joe Smith (Max), the hardest-working actor in the cast, takes one's breath away with his verbal and physical timing, and he has an decent-enough singing voice (combining a nice, ringing tone with a bleat). Laura Napoli (Maggie) was so moving in Boston Theatre Works' THE LARAMIE PROJECT (and wasted as one of its MACBETH witches), and I was delighted to see Ms. Napoli send up what could have been Yet Another Ingenue. She bears such a striking resemblance to the late Imogene Coca in both looks and temperament that whenever she appears, the era of Screwball Comedy gives way to the Golden Age of Television. Someone should write some sketches for Ms. Napoli, find her a young Sid Caesar, and turn 'er loose.
Just when you think you can laugh no more and have clapped your hands red at the curtain call – sit back and watch a one-minute miracle happen that upon completion will have you on your feet cheering at that one-of-a-kind magic that is theatre at its best. And if you DON'T stand up to cheer, it's because you don't have tickets to see this heavenly TENOR, and if you don't have tickets, it's because you've wasted precious time reading these scribbles, SO GET GOING!!!