Tenor of the Times 

Lend Me a Tenor

There are some plays that seem to spring up everywhere -- either because they're classics that bear repetition, or they're guaranteed audience-pleasers. Ken Ludwig's 1989 farce, Lend Me a Tenor, falls squarely into the second category. A casual Web search turns up a whopping five-thousand-plus hits, the vast bulk of them production notes from community theaters or university drama departments. And it's no wonder -- this Tony-award-winning confection of mistaken identities, sexy mix-ups, and general hamminess is very funny. It can also absorb a lot of overacting, which is a blessing for the current production at the Contra Costa Civic Theatre, which runs until November 17.

The whole play takes place in a fancy suite in Cleveland's best hotel where the Cleveland Grand Opera company's accountant and general dogsbody Max, his chatty girlfriend Maggie, and her overbearing father Saunders are waiting anxiously for the arrival of the man audiences call "Il Stupendo," the famed Italian tenor Tito Merelli. The great man is scheduled to help the company kick off its 1934 season that evening by singing the lead in Otello. Unfortunately, Merelli is running late, and when he does finally show up -- with volatile, undersexed wife Maria in tow -- he's not feeling well. In rapid succession, his wife leaves him and he apparently overdoses on phenobarbital, leading Saunders and Max to hatch a plan: Max will appear onstage in Tito's place, fully disguised in wig, blackface, and Merelli's extra costume.

As the second act opens, Max is returning from a triumphant deception -- who knew he was actually a great singer? But where is Tito's body? And who is the costumed lunatic the police prevented from breaking into the Opera House during Max's performance? Hilarity ensues as Maggie -- who's been holding out on Max because his kisses don't rock her world -- yields to the man she takes to be Il Stupendo. Meanwhile in the next room, the company's sultry soprano is trying to cement her reputation with the man with whom she thinks she just performed the greatest duet of her life -- who, while he has no memory of the singing, is certainly intrigued by Diana's other skills. Doors slam and people run back and forth as the dual Otellos seduce or are seduced by their respective women. Maria returns to claim her husband, Saunders tries to find his daughter and his assistant, the police try to snag their lunatic, and the saucy bellboy tries to get an autograph. It's an agreeable enough premise, and the actors and crew of the Contra Costa Civic Theater certainly attack it with vigor. The production values are excellent for amateur theater -- the technical and design aspects are all high quality, and the acting spirited.

That said, however, I have to be truthful and admit that this kind of thing really isn't to my taste. Even for comedy, it's ultralight. The candy-box nature of the set is emblematic of the show -- some comedies are nougats, or nut clusters, or have something else challenging about them -- an unusual flavor, coconut shreds, a crunchy base. This one is pure milk chocolate. Your teeth just go straight through.

Not that this should reflect badly on the show; indeed, the rest of the audience couldn't get enough the night I went. The Contra Costa Civic's version of Tenor is a spiffy, well-produced, shiny bit of perfectly entertaining fluff, unhampered by anything that could be considered the least bit objectionable, political, or thought-provoking. As an announcement made at the beginning of the show put it, this is "two hours of energetic nonsense."

Or, more precisely, most of it is. Unfortunately, the first act isn't all that energetic. While we wait patiently through the setup, Michael Cohen mugs and pouts as neurotic, put-upon Max, and Emilie Frybarger simpers and hides in closets as Maggie. The most exciting thing about the first act is meeting Maggie's domineering father Saunders (Phil Reed as the do-it-my-way businessman is hilarious, inhabiting his role with verve). Saunders says whatever he likes, calls people names, and generally snacks on the scenery (quite literally; there's a funny bit with some grapes).

It's during the second act that things really get swinging. Cohen is much more interesting as Max-playing-Tito, while Todd Miller comes into his own as Tito-playing-Tito (especially funny as he tries to puzzle out what has happened -- or not happened -- to him). And the frocks (and bubbles) start a-flyin'. The strengths of this particular cast -- especially the physical comedy skills -- are more visible in the second act.

Nancy Tseng as vampy Diana has pitched her voice so low that instead of coming off as seductive, I found her monotonous and wondered if her throat was hurting her. It was impossible to imagine her singing soprano, although she had all the moves down for a woman who, according to Max, "has had so many flings, all the men in the company have been flung." She's certainly irresistible -- for one brief moment I thought maybe Maggie would fall prey, but, alas, no such luck. Wholesome, talkative, and naive, Frybarger's Maggie is yearning for Romance.

I have mixed feelings about the character of Tito's wife, Maria. If you find broad caricatures of Italians offensive, with every word ending in "a" -- i.e., "he's a biga piga" -- Maria will make you crazy. Jennifer Antonacci, however, certainly does the part justice physically, storming her expensively clad self back and forth across the stage. When she reveals her deep dissatisfaction with the state of her marriage -- the hotel rooms, the constant motion, the lack of physical gratification -- we believe her. Pennell Chapin's lady-who-lunches, Julia, is alternately grating and ingratiating; she's also rather mysterious -- why does Maggie call her Aunt Julia when they're not related? Could there be some back story between Saunders and Julia? Youngster Salvador Ramos makes a fine bellboy, and more than holds his own with the rest of this noisy, busy cast -- using his face to good advantage.

The set and costumes are very well done. Daniel Thobias' cutaway set, with its pink stripes and ragged dividing wall, is exactly right, and the costume coordinators have done a fine job evoking the period, mostly through the women's gowns (when Saunders says of doyenne Julia's sparkly opening-night frock, "You look like the Chrysler Building," we wholeheartedly agree). The lighting and sound all contribute in a subtle but effective way, and the staging is lively (if a little overfocused on keeping the actors turned out to the audience).

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