The entire cast of zanies populating Ken Ludwig’s phenomenally popular Lend Me A Tenor launch into both song and dance in PCPA Theaterfest’s Lend Me A Tenor The Musical, one of the best Broadway shows never to have been seen on Broadway, or at least not yet.

World-premiered at Utah Shakes back in 2007 before heading across the pond to London’s West End four years later, book writer-lyricist Peter Sham and composer Brad Carroll’s Lend Me A Tenor The Musical takes Ludwig’s mistaken-identity-filled, hiding-behind-doors-packed, comic-pratfalls-highlighted plot, makes at least two great big improvements, and sprinkles in a dozen songs that could hardly be cleverer or more tuneful (with enough reprises to have you exit humming).

Like the Ludwig original, Lend Me A Tenor The Musical has Cleveland Grand Opera general manager Henry Saunders (Erik Stein) and his long-suffering assistant Max (Joe Ogren) awaiting the arrival of opera superstar Tito Merelli (George Walker), aka “Il Stupendo,” for tonight’s sold-out performance. (“Where The Hell Is Merelli?”)

Equally excited about Il Divo’s arrival is Max’s girlfriend Maggie (Caroline Whelehan), who wouldn’t mind a pre-marital “Fling” with an operatic legend like Tito, while Max harbors a wish of his own, to take Il Stupendo’s place centerstage and sing those tenor arias himself. (“How ‘Bout Me?”)

Unfortunately for Max, Tito does at last arrive, accompanied by his raven-haired spitfire of an Italian wife Maria (Bree Murphy), ever watchful for female fans who’d delight in a dalliance with her marito, women like man-crazy soprano diva Diana Divane (Karin Hendricks).

Maria’s discovery of a starstruck Maggie hiding in Tito’s closet is all the hot-blooded Italiana needs to pack her bags and bid her philandering spouse addio, but not before scribbling down a farewell letter (“The Last Time”) and leaving it on Tito’s bed.

Meanwhile, 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 of Phenobarbitals himself … and the rest I’ll leave it to you to discover.

Keeping the Ludwig laugh quotient high, Lend Me A Tenor The Musical savvily substitutes Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci for Verdi’s Otello (i.e., no offensive blackface this time round), adds a third character to a scene previously involving two identically dressed tenors, and does so with such farcical brilliance, Ludwig himself ought to take note.

And though one Cleveland Opera grande dame may well be sufficient for Lend Me A Tenor The Play, its musical adaption turns Julia into a trio of Henry’s ex-wives (Kitty Balay, Méami Maszewski, and Vivian Vaeth as Anna One, Anna Two, and Anna Three) to harmonious-hilarious effect.

 And speaking of trios, Ludwig’s Bellboy may have lost his storyline, but Sham and Carroll give us three Dancing Bellhops (Blake Brundy, Adam Mantell, and Timothy Stewart) and a pair of Dancing Maids (Annali Fuchs and Katie Wackowski) to execute choreographer Wackowski’s taptasic footwork to the Merellis’ confusion and the audience’s delight.

Composer Carroll directs for PCPA with both precision and panache, eliciting one performance gem after another beginning with physical comedy champ Ogren’s eager-beaver, ginger-haired Max, a star-turn so engaging it more than merits the recent Pace University grad’s final-curtain-call standing ovation.

PCPA favorite Walker has never been more sensational than as Tito, over-the-top comedic brilliance matched by a glorious operatic tenor, and just wait till Murphy at her most favolosa shows up as Tito’s firecracker-battleaxe wife.

In addition, Walker and Murphy’s supertitled duet of “Facciamo L’Amor” opposite Mitchell Lam Hau and Katie Gucik as their younger selves proves the very definition of a showstopper.

The role of Diana allows a divalcious Hendricks to show off both comic and soprano chops in the two-minute Opera’s-Greatest-Hits medley that is “May I Have A Moment,” Stein once again shines as Henry (and never more so than as one of two Pagliaccis too many), Whelehan gives frisky ingénue Maggie both charm and spunk, and Matt Koenig makes the most of stage manager Bernie’s brief scenes.

Last but not least, Balay, Maszewski, and Vaeth’s trio of Annas are three times more fabulous than any one Julia could be.

Triple-threats Christian Arteaga, Brundy, Tyler Matthew Campbell, Casey Canino, Leo Cortez, assistant choreographer-dance captain Fuchs, Gucik, Hau, Mantell, Antwon D. Mason Jr., Skye Privat, Stewart, and Wackowski add big-Broadway-musical pizzazz as company members, opera fans, hotel employees, and more.

Music director Paul Marszalkowski elicits both splendid solos and ear-pleasing harmonies to sound designer Elizabeth Weidner and sound engineer Andrew Mark Wilhelm’s expert mix of amped vocals and prerecorded instrumental tracks.

Lend Me A Tenor The Musical looks terrific under Solvang skies thanks to Eddy L. Barrows’ colorful period costumes both operatic and elegant, Jason Bolen’s ingeniously morphing scenic design, and Tim Thistelton’s vivid lighting.

Canino, Jonathan Fierros, Gucik, AJ Morales, and Jillian Patterson are swings.

Weston Scott is remount director. Ellen Beltramo is production stage manager. Additional program credits are shared by Jake Cannon and Sarah Pool (assistant music directors), Peter S. Hadres (fight director) and Hau (assistant fight director), and Koenig (voice and dialect).

Lend Me A Tenor The Musical may not have been ready for Broadway ten years ago, but (producers take note) it most definitely is today. In the meantime, its PCPA Theaterfest debut gives SoCal audiences ample reason to laugh out loud and cheer even louder.

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Solvang Festival Theater, 420 2nd Street, Solvang.

–Steven Stanley
July 15, 2017
Photos: Luis Escobar Reflections Photography Studio & Michael Collins

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