There’s a reason why Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me a Tenor has been staged umpteen times around the world--from the West End to Broadway to high schools--since it premiered in 1986. It’s a classic, “well-made” farce that offers juicy comic parts—from the opera star to the starry-eyed ingénue to even the hotel bellhop—that actors love to play. And there’s an obvious glow of pleasure radiating from the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production, which opened at the Broadway Theatre Center this weekend. It isn’t frantically paced—there’s more door-closing than door-slamming. It isn’t neck-breakingly acrobatic. And it certainly doesn’t aspire to literary greatness. But it is sweetly satisfying to see imaginative comedians have this much fun on stage.
Lend Me a Tenor does have something to say, once you get past the mistaken identities and double entendres. Art is hard. Opera is really hard. But it is also beautiful and transporting and well worth enduring the “personalities,” egos, and other human foibles that sometimes hinder it’s making.
And here, the obstacles pile up quickly. Tito Morelli (Steven M. Koehler) is an international opera star hired to sing Otello for the Cleveland Opera Company. As Morelli is fond of wine and women, as well as song, Saunders (Drew Brhel), the harried company manager, enlists his shy assistant Max (Rick Pendzich) to keep an eye on Morelli during his stay. The star arrives with his wife in tow (Rána Roman), who is more than familiar with Tito’s extracurricular interests. And those star-struck interests immediately come knocking on one of
the many hotel-room doors: Saunders’ daughter (Hannah Klapperich-Mueller), who once had a fleeting backstage moment with Morelli; his leading lady (Alexandra Bonesho), whose career advancement strategy includes champagne and a bubble bath; not to mention Saunders’ wife (Linda C. Loving) and a hotel bellhop (Peter Sisto), who each want their moment in the sun with the larger-than-life Tito.
It’s hard to imagine a livelier pair of Morelli’s than Koehler and Roman. They dig in to their exaggerated Italian accents with glee, and ride that stereotypical Italian roller coaster—from ma fangul verbal battles to lusty passion quicker than you can say Giuseppe Verdi. In Roman’s final line, you can hear the couple’s lifetime of shared libido in her two simple words: “Let’s go.”
Pendzich is the heart of the play, and watching the quavering Max blossom into song (“Dio, che nell'alma infondere” from Verdi’s Don Carlos) at the urging of Morelli is one of the shows touching highlights. Brhel and Bonesho dig into their roles with exuberant comic energy, as does Loving in the Margaret Dumont role. Klapperich-Mueller and Sisto—two Marquette University students working with MCT as part of its “University Collaboration Series”—more than hold their own among the seasoned pros. Klapperich-Mueller is charming as the reserved (with Max) and swooning (with Tito) Maggie.
And Sisto gets some wonderful comic moments from a role that a lesser actor could easily sleepwalk through.
Of course, director C. Michael Wright is part of all this, and it’s easy to see his comic touch in the timing, the tone, and in the perfect comic details. Watch Maggie’s love-interest kiss her hand, and the actors let the touch linger dramatically. And in the second act scenes, where comic misunderstanding leads to hilarious exchanges, Wright’s sense of timing keeps the variations on the same joke from getting stale.
And that’s the key to a play like Lend Me a Tenor: to exalt in the familiar without drifting into cliché. And Wright and his company hit all the right notes.
PHOTOS by Mark Frohna: Rick Pendzich and Steven M. Koehler.
Rana Roman, Peter Sisto and Drew Brhel.