Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me A Tenor may not be the funniest play ever written, but if it isn’t, it certainly comes darned close, as Actors Co-op’s pitch-perfect revival makes abundantly, hilariously clear.
An intricate plot constructed with razor-sharp precision, double entendres galore, oodles of physical comedy shtick, several cases of mistaken identity, and plenty of doors to slam and hide behind—Lend Me A Tenor has all of these, and then some, along with a Co-op-debuting director who insures that not a single laugh gets lost from Tenor’s outrageous start to the production’s farcical ballet of a bonus ending.
Actors Co-op mainstay Bruce Ladd is Cleveland Grand Opera general manager Henry Saunders circa 1934, who along with his long-suffering assistant Max (Nathan Bell) is awaiting the arrival of opera superstar Tito Merelli (Floyd VanBuskirk), aka “Il Stupendo,” to sing the title role in tonight’s performance of Verdi’s Otello.
Perhaps even more excited about Tito’s arrival is Max’s girlfriend Maggie (Tannis Hanson), who confesses to Max her heretofore unspoken desire to have a pre-marital “fling” with a man whose kiss will make her hear bells, a man like Tito to be more precise.
Max, meanwhile, harbors a wish of his own, to take Il Stupendo’s place centerstage and sing those Verdi arias himself, though as Saunders points out to him, such an appearance would likely lead to old women being “trampled to death in the stampede up the aisles” while exiting the opera house in droves.
Fortunately for Cleveland opera lovers, Tito does at last arrive, accompanied by his Rubenesque battleaxe of an Italian wife Maria (Gina D’Acciaro), ever watchful for female Merelli fans who’d like nothing better than to “fling” with her hubby, women like Maggie, or like tonight’s Desdemona, Cleveland Grand Opera soprano diva Diana (Selah Victor), who’s been “flinging her way through the whole cast” and wouldn’t mind adding Tito to the long lineup of men she’s “flung out.”
Maria’s discovery of a starstruck Maggie hiding in Tito’s closet is all the hot-blooded Italiana needs to pack her bags and, at long last, leave her philandering spouse for good, but not before scribbling down a “Caro John” letter and leaving it on Tito’s bed.
With Il Stupendo clearly in need of a pre-performance nap, Max takes it upon himself to spike the tenor’s wine with a sleeping pill or two, unaware that Tito has already taken a couple Phenobarbitals himself, and before you know it, Signor Merelli lies passed out next to his wife’s farewell missive.
And then, in a hilarious twist, Max discovers Tito unconscious and, taking Maria’s ambiguously written as Merelli’s “Goodbye Cruel World” suicide note, dons one of Tito’s two matching Otello costumes, the better to fool tonight’s audience into believing that mild-mannered Max is none other than Tito Merelli in the flesh.
As for Lend Me A Tenor’s suprise end-of-act-one blackout, could there be a more inspired set-up for post-intermission mayhem? I let you see and decide for yourself.
First-time Co-op director Moosie Drier clearly knows his slapstick farce backwards and forwards, and no wonder, having begun his comedy apprenticeship as an 8-year-old regular on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In back in the early ‘70s.
Drier’s comedic expertise shows in a castfull of inspired performances, beginning with the irresistible Bell, whose delectably deft turn as Max anchors the production and allows those around him to attain over-the-top magnificence.
Ladd proves himself every bit the master of comedy as he was tragedian extraordinaire in the Co-op’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, his Henry Saunders harried to the point of hysteria and massacring every foreign name and phrase that passes his lips.
A couple more Co-op staples sparkle equally brightly, Deborah Marlowe glamorous and glorious as all get-out as Cleveland Opera Guild grande dame Julia, and Stephen Van Dorn as the most flamboyantly theatrical bellhop ever to flit hither and thither on a Co-op stage.
Last but not least is guest artist VanBuskirk as a deliciously over-the-top Merelli, the stage vet demonstrating the same expertise at scripted comedy as he does at improvisation in his multiple appearances in Impro Theatre’s “UnScripted” franchise.
Much of the fun in Lend Me A Tenor comes from seeing character after character mistake VanBuskirk’s Otello for Bell’s café-au-lait-pancaked Moor, the two actors looking absolutely nothing alike—and apparently not even in bed. (Conservative Co-op subscribers can take comfort that any and all hanky-panky remains hidden offstage from easily offended eyes.)
Scenic/properties designer Karen Ipock has created a gorgeous 1930s hotel suite so elegantly furnished and appointed, you might want to move right in. Costume designer Wendell C. Carmichael complements Ipock’s design with one stunning ‘30s outfit after another, with special snaps for Marlowe’s “Chrysler Building” tiara-and-gown ensemble and an Otello costume that (along with Krys Fehervari’s afro wig) turns Bell into a dead (if perhaps unintentional) ringer for The Jefferson’s Florence Johnston. (Fehervari’s other hair and wig creations are equally fine.) Mark Svastics lighting and Warren Davis’s sound designs are both winners as well, adding up to a production that looks and sounds like a million bucks.
Lend Me A Tenor is produced by Kimi Walker. Lisa Farber is stage manager and Rita Cannon assistant stage manager.
Leading Ladies, God’s Favorite, The Learned Ladies, and now Lend Me A Tenor. Is there any L.A. theater troupe any more gifted than Actors Co-op at laugh-getting revivals? Check out the Co-op’s latest and see for yourself why nobody in L.A. does it more consistently better than this much treasured Hollywood institution.
Actors Co-op, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood.
March 21, 2014
Photos: Lindsay Schnebly