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There are probably some people who would disagree, but music and theater critics are people too. We have our personal preferences as well as aversions towards certain styles, but that must be put aside in order to judge performances based solely on the commitment and execution of a musical or theatrical work. I found myself in such a position as I watched a wonderfully staged performance of Ken Ludwig's Lend Me a Tenor at Raleigh Little Theatre. I found myself in the very small minority of the audience who found very little to laugh about while nearly everyone else was close to inflicting bodily harm from sidesplitting laughter. Volumes have been written about comedy and psychological studies done to determine what people find funny and why that is, so this will most certainly not be resolved here.
Ken Ludwig was a corporate lawyer who had a dream of being a Broadway playwright. Working on his play before work at 4:30 in the a.m. and later in a special arrangement with his firm, he penned this remarkable rookie hit and grabbed a huge pot of gold at the end of the Great White Way. It opened on London's West End in 1986 and on Broadway in 1989 and has now been translated into sixteen languages. Lend Me a Tenor is written in the style of farce, a genre of comedic theater that goes back practically to the beginning of theater itself. Characterized by a fast-paced plot of unlikely, extravagant, and improbable situations, and with broadly stylized performances, it is definitely an acquired taste that you either love or hate. Think of the late '70's TV sitcom Three's Company and you pretty much have the style and tenor of Tenor.
The play is in two acts, each with two scenes that take place entirely in a hotel room in Cleveland. The set was inexplicably almost entirely in a drab mustard, baby poop color but otherwise served its purpose well – especially the several solid doors whose numerous slammings are as much a part of the script as the nearly non-stop dialog. The plot involves a web of mistaken identities centering on tenor Tito Merelli, who is scheduled to sing the lead in Otello for a fundraiser for the Cleveland Grand Opera. Michael Jones, Merelli, was brilliant as the hot-blooded Italian, and he seemed to elevate the comedic timing and shading above the farcical script. Loren Armitage had the meatiest part, as Max, the assistant to the impresario who gets to also impersonate Merelli, sing (quite well), and make love to his fiancée Maggie while impersonating Merelli. Speaking of Maggie, this major part, played by Adrienne Morton, crossed the line from farce to cartoonish. Her squeaking, chalk-on-blackboard voice finally gave out towards the end, and some of her staging seemed forced and under-rehearsed.
What would a play about high society arts be without the obligatory wealthy dowager? Alison Lawrence was deliciously ditsy despite playing the part of Julia, chairwoman of the Opera board, as the cookie cutter of Margaret Dumont, who played virtually the same character as the foil of Groucho Marx in several comedy classics. Add a way-over-the-top bellhop with questionable sexual inclinations, a sultry career-climbing soprano, and a producer who will do anything to keep the show going, and you have an incredible amount of material for misplaced identities and sexual mischief.
Director Rod Rich prepared the cast well, and they delivered their performances in a manner as believable as you can get, considering the plot. This is an evening at the theatre where you have to totally suspend disbelief, keep alert to the twists and turns, and simply not take anything too seriously. Ludwig has crafted a jewel of this style of comedy and its huge popularity and success is no fluke. The cleverly crafted plot is one of those where everyone says after the fact that they "saw it coming," but the surprises keep jumping out, especially the very end of the first act.
Despite it not quite being my "cup of tea," this is a thoroughly professional, leave-your-cares-at-home production that will delight all ages. From Moliere to the screwball film comedies of the 1930s to some of the best-loved TV sitcoms: if you like any of those you are going to love Raleigh Little Theatre's production of Lend Me a Tenor.
For details on upcoming performances, see our theatre calendar.