“Lend Me a Tenor” - opening tonight at the Solvang Festival Theater - is a familiar title to fans of stage comedy. The original play, by Ken Ludwig, is a farce -- a genre that can be difficult to translate into a musical format. Who has time to sing about their innermost feelings when they're busy running amok?
Luckily, Brad Carroll (music) and Peter Sham (book and lyrics) have given their adaptation plenty of heart. Despite being a recent work -- its London premiere was in 2011 -- it feels like a lighthearted musical comedy straight out of the 1930s. Some modern shows might play this with a cynical wink at the audience, but this piece is done sincerely. The score has a sprightly, jazzy period show-tune feel -- with some operatic influence thrown in, naturally. Carroll, who is no stranger to PCPA, also directs this production.
As the show begins, we're taken backstage of the Cleveland Grand Opera Company. It's 1934, and the company is celebrating its 50th anniversary. World-famous Italian tenor Tito “Il Stupendo” Merelli (George Walker) is to sing the lead in “Pagliacci” to a sold-out crowd. Unfortunately, nobody knows where he is, and curtain time is fast approaching.
The opera house is populated by familiar showbiz archetypes: ambitious diva Diana Divane (Karin Hendricks), gruff producer Henry Saunders (Erik Stein), his star-struck daughter Maggie (Caroline Whelehan) and Max (Joe Ogren), the humble prompter with big dreams.
As the opening number, “Where the Hell Is Merelli?” builds to a frenzy, we're sucked into the characters' desperation -- it feels as if their entire lives hinge on whether or not the star shows up. Stein's Saunders, in particular, seems as if he could snap at any moment. Adding to his tension is the Opera Guild, lead by a trio of his ex-wives. Kitty Balay, Meami Maszewski and Vivian Vaeth, who strut around the stage like they own it, and sing like the Andrews Sisters.
Maggie awaits Merelli for a different reason -- she yearns for a “Fling,” as she expresses in catchy song.
This is rough on poor Max, her sort-of boyfriend and would-be fiancé. So he comes up with a crazy idea ... he can sing ... he knows the part ... what if he stepped in for Merelli? He argues it out with his boss in a number called “How 'Bout Me?” Stein is particularly funny here as Saunders, with his withering responses to Max's earnest pleading.
With just a few shifts in scenery, Jason Bolen's versatile set whisks us off to the “Cleveland Five-Star World-Class Excelsior Downtown Hotel.” When Il Stupendo and his wife, Maria (Bree Murphy), finally do turn up, they're obsessively fawned over by the locals, to the tune of “For the Love of Opera.” It turns into an impressive tap number (choreography by Katie Wackowski) -- and when you add in Tito and Maria's weary reaction, it's a good bit of comedy as well.
Much of the action takes place in Merelli's hotel suite, which comes equipped with plenty of doors to slam, once the farce is in full swing. Max is called upon to escort the star to the theater, but winds up trapped in the middle of the Merelli's volatile marital squabbles. The couple shares another musical argument -- this time, in Italian (“Facciamo L'Amor”)! Murphy often steals the show as she sinks her teeth into Maria's rants of jealousy and vengeance -- “I'm-a gonna strangle him!”
When Tito learns that Max aspires to be a singer, he offers some advice. The charming Walker really connects with Ogren here, and the scene becomes the emotional hook of the piece. It culminates in “Be You'self,” an inspirational anthem in the vein of “Climb Ev'ry Mountain.”
But following a series of mishaps and misunderstandings, Merelli appears to be out of the picture once more. Soon, Max finds himself disguised in the clown make-up of Pagliaccio, preparing to face the cultural elite of Cleveland, and convince them he is Il Stupendo.
In order to pull this off, the actor playing Max must speak and sing meekly through most of Act One, then suddenly reveal a more powerful operatic sound. Ogren does both equally well. He also pulls off the show's lone moment of introspection, a song called “Knowing What I Know.”
Act Two is a tumble of mistaken identity and innuendo. Here, Hendricks gets to shine as her character tries to seduce “Tito,” while also trying to audition for him.
The contribution of the excellent ensemble cannot be overstated. The cast harmonizes beautifully on the big group numbers (music direction by Paul Marszalkowski). And Eddy L. Barrows' costumes are a visual delight, from the Opera Guild ladies' sparkling gowns to the colorful commedia dell'arte costumes of the opera cast.
If you miss the bygone days of musical comedy -- or you just like laughs and toe-tapping tunes -- you won't want to miss this production.