By Annette Hinkle
For its first production of the 2013 Main Stage season, Bay Street Theatre is taking audiences back — specifically, to Cleveland in 1934.
And in the style of the day, “Lend Me a Tenor,” which opens Tuesday at Bay Street Theatre under the direction of Don Stephenson, is billed as a madcap adventure full of mistaken identity, double entendres and head-spinning physical comedy.
Plays from the 1930s evoke a very specific vernacular — and this one is no exception, full, as it is, of the language and pratfalls that marked the physical comedy of the era. Though it takes place in the Midwest in the midst of the Great Depression, “Lend Me a Tenor” was actually written in the mid-1980s by Ken Ludwig, which means it offers a more contemporary take on a period piece.
Set in the home of the Cleveland Opera Company, the script tells the story of opera singer Tito Merelli, (a.k.a. “Il Stupendo”) who has come to town to take part in a gala fundraising performance for adoring fans. But his wife, Maria, suspects him of cheating on her with a young fan (not the first time, incidentally). Tito also suffers from stomach complaints and as a result, is given too many tranquilizers to calm his nerves prior to his much-anticipated performance, causing the need for a last minute “body-double” to be found.
Though their characters may have difficulties with one another, Both Roland Rusinek, who plays Tito Merelli, and Judy Blazer who portrays Maria, have a long love-affair with this show. Both are excited to see the way this production is all coming together on the Bay Street stage under Stephenson’s direction.
“I have wanted to do this show for a long time – it makes you fire on all cylinders,” says Rusinek. “I have to sing like an opera singer and get the comedy beats right. There are not a whole lot of parts or plays like this.”
“There’s really is not a bad role in the show,” he adds.
For Rusinek, when it comes to “Lend Me a Tenor,” the third time’s a charm. That’s how many times he has been cast in the play. This is, however, the first time his schedule has enabled him to accept the role (he once had to turn it down because he was appearing in another operatic themed production — “The Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway, and another time he was on tour as Uncle Fester in “The Addams Family.”)
Finally, with this production Rusinek is getting a chance to explore his alter-ego — Tito Merelli — and is greatly enjoying the process.
“As much as I’d hate to admit it, there’s so much about Tito that is like me,” confesses Rusinek. “He’s über sensitive, and tends to overeat, which is not so good for him.”
“Then there are parts completely not like me,” he adds. “He has a toxic relationship with his wife, though they do love each other and are meant to be together, she’ll say the wrong thing and make him nuts. Then it all happens vice versa.”
Ultimately, For Rusinek, what makes it all work in the end is the truth of the material.
“There’s so much honesty behind the craziness,” he adds. “It’s the comedy of the show and that’s why the show works so well. Over the top is only justifiable when the emotions are honest.”
Conversely, as Maria, Tito’s long suffering wife, Judy Blazer has really been long suffering. She’s been cast in the role of Maria on four separate occasions and for this production, also serves as the dialect coach (Italian was her first language).
“For me, I’m pulled in different directions,” she confides. “As much as I want it to be authentic Italian and I want Maria to be authentic, she’s a Marx Brothers Italian. My mother is from Italy and named Maria, and she’s nothing like this. She was a renowned singer and she said, ‘This is not Italian.’”
“It’s very stereotypically loud and they’re always fighting,” she says of her on-stage relationship with Tito. “She knows him well, all his tricks. She’s also the mother, the caretaker, the assistant — she’s what Italian wives used to be in the 1930s. She’s funny and angry and kind of one note — but it’s a good note … the note is high C.”
But it’s not all a matter of stereotype. Blazer notes through Stephenson’s direction, she finds the comedy coming into focus in an authentic way.
Perhaps Stephenson’s skill as a director can be attributed to his skill as an actor. Ironically, Blazer and Stephenson were “married” to one another — on stage only — in the show “Titanic,” but this is the first time Blazer has worked with him as a director.
“I never knew he was a director — I was so amazed at how deliciously he directs,” notes Blazer. “He’s amazing and he’s an actors’ director. He’s also completely entertaining. His note sessions are kind and supportive but clear and accurate.”
“It’s a timeless piece and Don has bought the heart to it,” says Blazer.
“Lend Me a Tenor” runs through June 23, 2013 at Bay Street Theatre on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor. Tickets are $59.50 and $69.50 with discounts for seniors, students, veterans and first responders. For more information call the box office at 725-9500 or visit www.baystreet.org. Preview performances for “Lend Me a Tenor (May 30 and 31) are sponsored by Peconic Landing.