By Annette Hinkle
If it’s an analogy your after, Ken Ludwig’s “Lend Me a Tenor,” the first production of Bay Street Theatre’s 2013 season, can probably best be compared to a roller coaster ride. It builds slowly — like a long uphill climb — and after the stage is set watch out, because it’s all down hill from there.
But in a good way.
For sheer fun factor this production is exactly what’s called for at the beginning of the hectic summer season. The play is fast paced, full of double entendres and mistaken identity — plus it’s hilarious to boot — especially in act two, when head spinning misunderstandings and quick change disappearing acts will leave your mind reeling.
Chalk it up largely to Ludwig’s astute writing. Though set in the 1930s, the play was written in the 1980s, so rather that being overly-sentimental, stilted and dated, it is savvy, smart and knowing in ways plays from that era typically are not. Credit also goes to Don Stephenson whose capable direction imbues the production with a sense of energy, impeccable comic timing and well-placed asides to the audience which bring a high level of buoyancy to the experience.
All in all, it’s hard not to have a good time at this one.
“Lend Me a Tenor” is set in a Cleveland, Ohio hotel suite in 1934 where the great Italian tenor, Tito Merelli is due to arrive any minute. He’s in town to perform as Othello in a spectacular fundraising gala which has been organized by the Cleveland Grand Opera.
Waiting nervously for Morelli’s arrival is Maggie (Betsy DiLellio) a huge fan of the tenor who once fainted in his presence. Maggie, the daughter of Saunders, the opera company’s general manager, is eager to meet the singer again, though her boyfriend Max (played by Noah Plomgren) thinks it’s a bad idea. Maggie doesn’t care what Max thinks (and is not even sure what she thinks of Max) so she hides in the closet of the bedroom to await the tenor’s arrival.
Max, an amateur opera singer himself, is Saunders’ assistant and his mission is to keep track of the notoriously unpredictable singer and make sure he stays calm. But things are not starting off well and Tito is already missing when the curtain rises. Though his train has arrived, the singer has not and when Saunders (played by Steve Rosen in a manner reminiscent of Jon Lovitz) gets to the hotel room, he is both irate and completely panicked that his big night will not come off as planned.
And you can bet he’s right about that.
In fact, Tito (played hilariously by Roland Rusinek) soon does arrive. His huge personality, presence and voice fills the room — as does his hot-tempered wife, Maria (Judy Blazer) who was not expected to accompany him. The two have a volatile, yet intimately codependent relationship (and what couple doesn’t). But her suspicions are on high alert given her husband’s past indiscretions with young female fans — and are soon born out when Maria finds Maggie hiding in the closet while she’s putting away the luggage.
Maria promptly writes a “Dear Tito” letter while he’s in the bathroom and splits. When he realizes his wife has left him — for good this time — he is inconsolable and in desperate need of a calming influence for his delicate constitution. That calm comes through a liberal dose of phenobarbital, which the singer administers in the bedroom. He then receives a second generous dose in a glass of champagne via the unknowing Max.
Before the drugs kick in, however, Tito gives Max some singing tips and builds his confidence in a delightful and charming sequence in which the two sing (quite well, actually) to operatic music that mysteriously materializes in the room. It’s a great moment and a highlight of the play is the mentor/apprentice relationship that develops between Tito and Max — kindred spirits united by a love of opera.
Then Tito passes out cold in the bedroom and cannot be revived. With the demise of their star performer, Saunders and Max must conspire to come up with a plan B so the gala evening will not be a total loss.
Meanwhile, everyone in Cleveland loves opera, it seems, and also applying pressure to the already fraught situation are Diana (Donna English) the city’s premiere soprano who will sing opposite Tito and is pushing for one-on-one time with the tenor so she can convince him to help her in her career, and Julia (Nancy Johnson) the chairwoman of the opera house who expects this gala night to be her crowning achievement before all of Cleveland society.
Then there’s the Bellhop (played hilariously by Scott Cote). A rabid fan of Tito Merelli, he will do anything to meet his idol and insists on over-staying his welcome whenever he delivers anything to the room. Though his lines are few, Cote’s slouchy posture, awkward fitting uniform and squinty-eyed asides at the audience when he’s particularly peeved are priceless.
Of course, as these things go, the stakes soon escalate and its in act two that life really gets interesting (and at times, confounding). Be forewarned, not everything from the ‘30s has been updated in this script, and there’s discomfort to be had in the fact that as Othello, the characters are disguised behind brown make up and dark wigs to pull off the script’s bait and switch twist. It will certainly not be to everyone’s liking.
As an ensemble, this production’s stellar cast works great together. As Tito, Rusinek is a brilliant comic actor and Blazer has her Italian wife/mother role down to a tee. Particularly endearing is Plomgren as Max, a seemingly mild-mannered character who has great fire in his belly.
In the end, “Lend Me a Tenor” is really a love story — or rather, a series of them. Not only does it highlight the long term — if dysfunctional — love of couples who have been together for better or worse for years; but the play also offers a take on new love, the indecision that young people experience when trying to determine if a prospective mate is truly one for the ages. Then there’s the particularly poignant relationship between Tito and Max — that of master and student whose bond is based in an entirely different, but equally powerful, kind of love — one for an art form that captures heart, mind and soul. It’s a kind of love not everyone will have the fortune to experience in his or her lifetime — but “Lend Me a Tenor” certainly makes it easy to understand how it’s possible.
“Lend Me A Tenor” runs through June 23 at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor. Scenic design is by Ken Goldstein, lighting by Mike Billings, costumes by Wade Laboissonneire and sound design by Matt Kraus. For tickets call 725-9500.