Mining the Opera World for Laughs. THEATER: REVIEW
NEW YORK — LEND ME A TENOR Comedy by Ken Ludwig. Directed by Jerry Zaks. Starring Victor Garber, Ron Holgate, Philip Bosco, Tovah Feldshuh, and Jane Connell. `LEND ME A TENOR,'' at the Royale Theatre, began its hit career in London, was nominated for an Olivier Award, and ``has been performed in eight languages throughout Europe'' (according to the Playbill). Now Ken Ludwig's mixture of the antic and grandly operatic has been translated into American and transplanted to Middle America. Played to the hilt by an octet of Broadway's finest, it abounds in impudent mirth and merriment.
As amended for Broadway, the preposterous nonsense takes place in Cleveland in 1934 as local operagoers await the debut of world-renowned tenor Tito Merelli (Ron Holgate) in Verdi's ``Otello.'' But with rehearsals imminent, ``Il Stupendo,'' as he is known to his fans, is still being awaited at his hotel suite by frantic local sponsors. Most frantic of all is Saunders (Philip Bosco), general manager of the Cleveland Grand Opera Company. When Tito and his imperious wife, Maria (Tovah Feldshuh), do arrive, they announce that the tenor is too indisposed to rehearse.
From this point on, ``Lend Me a Tenor'' becomes a rollicking display piece of gimmicks and twists as old as farce itself. They include an apparent suicide, a heroic impersonation, mistaken identities on a grand scale, secret connivings, double-entendres, amorous interludes, and assorted incidental surprises - all with the percussive help of the six banging doors that give onto designer Tony Walton's cream-and-chrome art deco suite. While the play is set in motion by the suspense over Merelli's arrival, its climax turns on a successful impersonation, in full costume and makeup, by Max (Victor Garber), Saunders' assistant, beneath whose wimpy exterior beats the heart of a heroic tenor.
Broad comedy with a generous helping of lampoon - the essential ingredients of ``Lend Me a Tenor'' - are uproariously exploited by director Jerry Zaks, whose sure hand with such shenanigans (including double sight gags) might be listed under the heading of Zaks appeal.
Mr. Bosco's general manager is a magnificent caricature of bombast and fine fury. Mr. Holgate's Tito epitomizes the stereotype of the temperamental tenor. Yet he proves to be a ham with heart when it comes to encouraging Max's timid vocal efforts as they join in a Verdi duet.
Besides the stars already mentioned, the Clevelanders are blithely impersonated by Jane Connell as chairman of the opera guild, whose effusiveness is exceeded only by her sequined gown and trailing feather cloak; J. Smith-Cameron as Max's winsome, tenor-smitten girlfriend; Caroline Lagerfelt as a soprano ready to give all for her career; and Jeff Brooks as an opera-buff bellhop with an aria at the ready. Thanks to them all, as well as to costumer William Ivey Long and lighting designer Paul Gallo, ``Lend Me a Tenor'' rocks the Royale with laughter.