Theatre Palisades has struck gold with its production of Ken Ludwig’s “Lend Me A Tenor,” directed by Sherman Wayne. The tightly wound comedy is a crescendo of laughs that leaves its audience demanding an encore.
Curtain up: a hotel suite in Cleveland, 1934. Henry Saunders (Greg Abbott), general manager of the Cleveland Grand Opera Company, anxiously awaits the arrival of famous Italian tenor Tito Merelli (Peter Miller), scheduled to sing the lead in a one-night-only, sold-out gala performance.
The boozy lecher Merelli is a handful for Saunders, who enlists the help of his beleaguered young assistant Max (Jeff Dewitt) to keep the singer entertained before the show. Julia (Martha Hunter), the head of the Opera Guild, pines for Merelli’s attention, along with bellhop Frank (Randy Oppenheimer), a fan who can’t seem to get a minute of his idol’s time.
When Merelli’s boisterous wife, the spicy, prima donna mama Maria (Maria O’Connor), finds Saunders’ daughter (and Max’s girlfriend), the slender, star-struck Maggie (Holly Sidell) hiding in Merelli’s closet in hopes of an autograph, she suspects the young beauty of wanting more than a signature and storms off after writing Merelli a “Dear John” letter.
When Merelli finds the letter, he is heartbroken, threatening to kill himself. After downing a few too many sleeping pills, the singer falls into a motionless slumber, which both Max and Saunders mistake for lifelessness.
With the death of a beloved star on their hands, Max, himself a surprisingly talented tenor with a passion for the opera, concocts a plan to replace Merelli in the grand performance, disguised as the tragic clown Pagliacci, hoping to simultaneously save his hide and win the heart of Maggie, who seems to have eyes (and ears) only for Merelli. When Max and Saunders leave for the show, Merelli wakes up, very much alive and very late for his performance.
The play’s first act boils up to a satisfying suspense. With the characters in a laugh-filled lurch, and with two costumed clowns on the loose, the stage is set for a second act filled with mistaken identity, whirlwind romance and uproarious laughter, the frenzy inexorably erupting like fizz from a shaken soda can.
When femme fatale Diana (Stephanie Stern) turns up in act two (another romantic acolyte of Merelli’s and an ingénue soprano) things get even wilder.
The costumes designed by June Lissandrello are without flaw in this production, every stitch of woolen suit and rayon dress convincingly filling the set immaculately and meticulously crafted by Wayne, who collaborated with Frans Klinkenberg on lighting design.
Of course, a play about opera singers would be remiss without great sound design, which Susan Stangl provides pitch-perfectly, from the catchy original music, to the passionate duet between Max and Merelli to the police sirens that wail outside the windows.
The syncopation in the staging and comedic timing between the characters was a delight to behold. The casting is expertly done as well, with Dewitt as the neurotic but golden-hearted Max, Abbott as the expressive and explosive Saunders, Hunter as the bon-vivant grande dame, Stern as the sly and seductive starlet, O’Connor as the implacable Italian diva, Sidell as the conflicted young heart and Oppenheimer as the stolid, instantly humorous bellhop.
Dewitt shines in his transformation from Max to “Merelli,” as we see his character emerge from his chrysalis transformed and renewed. Miller, as the renowned, rotund singer is also eminently likable and his moments singing are some of the best in the show.
Abbott and Hunter are in remarkable form in this production, exemplified best in their pithy, punchy telephone calls, subtle timing, and expressions.
“If laughter is indeed the best medicine, we hope we can be responsible for giving you just a bit of an overdose today,” Wayne wrote in the program.
Go see “Lend Me A Tenor”—it is Theatre Palisades at its best, bringing a little slice of the west end to the west side.
For tickets and showtimes, visit theatrepalisades.com.