Theater Review: Comic misunderstandings reach operatic level in Playhouse farce
Tito Merelli, the world famous tenor, has come to make his American debut at the Cleveland Grand Opera Company. However, a series of unfortunate events, capped off by a drink that is both shaken and stirred, means a last second replacement tenor is desperately required to avoid complete disaster on opening night.
"Lend Me a Tenor," which opened Thursday night at the NorShor Theatre, is a door-slamming farce that hits the bull's-eye by setting up all of the requisite comic pieces before we fade to black at the end of Act 1, and then in Act 2 lets the dominoes fall like a house of cards.
Tito, played by Jody Kujawa, arrives decked out like Enrico Caruso but clearly has more in common with Chico Marx. As Henry Saunders, the exasperated manager of the opera company trying to ensure the show goes on, Mike Pederson's bellowing amply demonstrates the great acoustics in the newly refurbished NorShor.
Caught in the middle, in way more ways than one, is Cory Anderson's Max, the nebbish assistant to Saunders. But in a farce, every nebbish shall have his night at the opera.
With the author's blessing this particular production changes the opera in question from Verdi's "Otello" to Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci."
This alteration is not totally smooth — after all, Canio does not actually put on his clown makeup until the end of the opera's first act — but allows the inclusion of an instantly recognizable aria, and, more importantly, avoids having any character in blackface as the Moor of Venice.
This is neither the time nor place for that.
Director Michael Kraklio's cast has the timing down on both the fast-paced dialogue and slamming all the doors in Ashley Wereley's set. A spotlight effect is used creatively and Jon Brophy also provides a nice twilight lighting effect near the end of Act 1, complete with shadows from the window frames.
The comic centerpieces come in the first scene of the second act, when playwright Ken Ludwig comes up with a hysterical conversation in which two people are totally oblivious that they are talking about totally different things, a feat he pulls off not once, or twice, but three times in succession. Which totally explains why "Lend Me a Tenor" is a community theater staple.
Making their Playhouse debut are Eden Nesburg as Maggie, who may or may not be Max's girlfriend, and Jessica Saxton as Maria, Tito's wife. Nesburg deftly unloads a trio of Freudian slips in her best moment, while Saxton milks her character's heavily accented fractured English for all it is worth.
As Julia, chair of the Opera Guild, Christa Schulz uses her languid drawl to steal every scene she is in, while KT Magonlia affects a silky smooth rasp as Diana, the combination diva and 1930s glamour girl. Jonathan Manchester completes the cast as the bothersome bellhop.
The highlights of Peg Ferguson's costume design are the dazzling gown worn by Julia, the sleek gold dress with scarf worn — more often than not — by Diana, and Pederson's opening-night white tails and waistcoat ensemble.
If you go
What: 'Lend Me a Tenor' by Ken Ludwig
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through April 14 and 2 p.m. April 15
Where: NorShor Theatre, 211 E. Superior St.
Tickets: Available at duluthplayhouse.org