CNY Playhouse’s ‘Lend Me a Tenor’ keeps the laughs coming and the action going
Who knew a performance of Verdi’s ‘Otello’ could be this amusing?
What can possibly be funny about Verdi’s Otello, the opera generally acknowledged to be the culmination of Italian tragic opera? Kenneth Ludwig believes he found the answer — and three Tony Awards say he’s on to something.
Lend Me a Tenor (not to be confused with the musical version of the same play) has earned critical acclaim by the NY Times as “One of the two great farces by a living writer.” Little wonder. The script is clever, the laughs are plenty and the assortment of eight characters intertwine like a Marx brothers’ flick. Of course, the plot is a bit far-fetched. Those acquainted with Verdi’s Otello will likely shake their heads in disbelief at the thought of an amateur stepping in at the last moment for what is widely considered to be the most difficult of all tenor roles, demanding Herculean stamina of a Wagnerian heldentenor. But hey, Lend Me a Tenor is opera buffa, not opera seria.
Ludwig penned this farce in 1986, and it has been finding its way into professional, semi-professional and community theaters ever since. The latest troupe to stage Lend Me a Tenor locally is CNY Playhouse, which this weekend kicked off its new (2015) season. A delightful ensemble of eight comic actors under the capable direction of Dustin Czarny kept the laughs coming, and did so without resorting to silly slapstick or kitsch. When the show came to an end there were two Otellos onstage, dressed identically, and lots of sore bellies in the audience from an hour and three-quarters of near-constant giggling and laughter.
The plot of Lend Me a Tenor, set in 1934 Cleveland, is the stuff opera buffa is made of: love triangles, mistaken identities, slamming doors, lampooning of cultural stereotypes and the like.
The action takes place in a suite at an upscale hotel, where the fictitious Cleveland Grand Opera Company has booked a room for the world’s leading tenor (appropriately nicknamed “Il Stupendo”), who is to perform the lead role in the company’s production of Verdi’s Otello. Attendees at the gala event are to include the largest donors, and there’s a rumor that President and Mrs. Roosevelt will be attending as well.
When Stupendo overdoses on prescription pills and alcohol just moments before the performance, panic begins to set in. Henry Saunders, the company’s general manager, cajoles his assistant Max (an amateur tenor whose practical experience as a singer is limited to singing in the shower) into taking the great tenor’s place. He is told to dress in Otello’s costume — and since Otello is a Moor, Max will smear on the customary blackface that will have the added benefit of concealing his true identity from the audience. (The use of blackface, while politically incorrect, is essential to the plot.)
Stupendo, who awakens only after the show has begun, quickly dons his costume (and blackface) and tries to go onstage, but is turned away as a crazed imposter. In disbelief, he returns to the hotel after the performance, still costumed, at the same time Max (also costumed) enters the opposite bedroom. Add two young ladies pursuing the tenors for an after-performance party and backstage adventure, and you get the idea.
Ludwig’s humor in this comedy depends largely on timing. The snap, crackle and pop of the actors’ lines must interweave smoothly and seamlessly, like contrapuntal voices in a Bach fugue. If the timing is not quite right, the one-liners, gags and double-entendres fall flat. While Czarny’s production at this early stage in the run could use some WD-40 to help the moving parts run more smoothly, he nevertheless crafts sufficient comedic weight to send the audience into hysterics at all the right moments, especially during the outrageous second act.
Jim Magnarelli largely dominates the performance as Henry Saunders, the frazzled general manager of the opera company who begins to unravel when his leading tenor misses the dress rehearsal. When the unconscious Stupendo later appears to be dead on his bed just prior to showtime, Saunders goes to pieces.
I was deeply impressed with Magnarelli’s performance last spring as the Russian émigré head-writer Val Slotsky in the CNY Playhouse production of Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor. After watching his performance Saturday, it’s clear that this was no fluke.
With his commanding voice and persuasive stage presence, Magnarelli easily looks the part of “the boss,” adding credence to his bullying demeanor when barking orders at his assistant Max (Vincent Randazzo) or the hotel bellhop (Ty Marshall) — who always seems to turn up at all the wrong moments. Although Magnarelli tripped over his lines on several occasions, the veteran actor got back on track without missing a beat, with the consummate ease of an acrobat.
Like Magnarelli, Zach Siracuse — as the suave and self-assured tenor virtuoso, Tito (Il Stupendo) Merelli — commands the attention of all when he makes his appearance at the hotel, and his magnificent Italian accent remained intact throughout the performance. With his good posture, supercilious facial expressions and aura of self-importance, Siracuse looks the part of a real operatic tenor from head to toe. (I expect he could easily have talked his way past Metropolitan Opera Security to gain entrance to the famed opera house in Lincoln Center.) Too bad Ludwig reduces this character to complete vaudevillian farce in the second act. I would have liked to have seen this man’s Stupendo persona a bit longer.
As Saunders’ assistant and go-to man, Max, Vincent Randazzo appeared appropriately harried when dashing from room to room chasing down Stupendo and trying to diffuse the oncoming catastrophe. But Randazzo tended to overact a good deal of the time, with over-the-top mannerisms that after a while grew predictable and tiresome. A bit of subtlety would go a long way in mending this uneven performance.
In spite of the vocal hype, we never really get to hear the “world’s greatest tenor” (or his reluctant double, Max) sing in this production. Early on, when Stupendo gives Max an impromptu singing lesson, the pair sings a phrase or two from the famous duet in Verdi’s Don Carlo (Dio, che nell’alma infondere) — but this was hardly a “duet” at all, considering they sang it in unison. Well, at least credit the two actors for singing in-tune.
I thoroughly enjoyed Katie DeFerio’s performance as Henry’s daughter (and Max’s sometimes-girlfriend) Maggie, which she delivered with the proper balance of sincerity, earnestness and self-doubt. Hopelessly confused in matters of love, Maggie is the play’s only three-dimensional character, and DeFerio quickly endeared herself to the audience. She portrayed her character’s ambivalence over her affections for Max convincingly.
Ty Marshal, making his CNY Playhouse debut with great flamboyance, played his part as the outrageously silly bellhop to near-perfection. Marshal’s character, always a thorn in Henry’s side, looked perfectly ridiculous in his cartoonish-like bellhop uniform — with trousers some two sizes short. Marshal’s cornball facial expressions produced laughs galore.
As the haughty grand dame of the company’s lofty opera guild, Julia, Marcia Mele played her part a bit conservatively at first, with a soft-spoken demeanor that seemed too casual for a high society role such as this. But then Mele began a crescendo of dash and spirit that climaxed in the hilarious scene in Stupendo’s bedroom, where the elderly Julia attempts to seduce Stupendo through a hilarious series of increasingly suggestive signals. Though spurned, Nele nevertheless manages to create her own orgasmic moment — à la the famous restaurant scene with Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally.
As the seductive diva Diana, Natalie Wilson has the looks (and the body) for the archetypical ambitious soprano eager to sleep her way to stardom. Still, Wilson needs to put more into her character than just her body. Her performance would benefit greatly were she to turn up the heat and shift her sexy, manipulative gestures into high gear.
As Stupendo’s mercurial wife, Maria, Emily Buss captured the image of the tenor’s hot-blooded, jealous Italian wife. Buss could not however maintain her Italian accent on a consistent basis, and spoke so quickly that several of her lines were unintelligible, especially when the actress was shouting.
The handsome set, a collaborative effort by Navroz Dabu and Czarny, was effective and faithful to Ludwig’s specifications. The audience simultaneously sees the action taking place in both rooms, which are separated by a stage wall with a connecting door. The set acts as a virtual two-ring circus that heightens the farce, such as when the two Otellos are seduced by Maggie and Diana in their respective rooms.
Though a comedy, Lend Me a Tenor is no easy play to stage. Comedy is serious business, as the saying goes, and Czarny — like a good traffic cop — keeps the characters and the action moving along smoothly. The fact that there were no dramatic mishaps at Saturday’s performance, in spite of the large cast of eight and the logistical limitations of the space, speak well of the level of preparation that went into this production.
But the true measure of success, in this as in all comedy, is laughs. And CNY Playhouse’s season-opening production has lots of it.
What: Lend Me a Tenor, a farce by Kenneth Ludwig, directed by Dustin Czarny
Who: Central New York Playhouse
Where: Shoppingtown Mall, Dewitt NY (2nd floor, next to Macy’s)
Performance reviewed: Saturday, Jan. 10, 2015
Remaining performances: Plays through Jan. 24; dinner show Jan. 17
Ticket information: Call 315-885-8960 or http://www.cnyplayhouse.com
Length: About 1 hour and 45 minutes, including one intermission
Ticket prices: $17; $20 Friday and Saturdays
Family guide: Some scantily clad women, but suitable for all ages; brief smoking onstage