Lend Me A Tenor Pays Dividends in Laughs
What can you say about a play where you get to see Elena Gutierrez and Erin Esposito prance around the stage in their underwear? In garters belt and stockings no less? How about, "Two seats in the first row please"?
I spent a good part of my time watching the Surflight's current production rolling my eyes at the onstage antics but in the end I'll be damned if it didn't win me over. And Gutierrez's and Esposito's dishabille had nothing to do it with it.
OK, I lied. But there's more to it than that. There's a lot to like in this madcap tale set in a Cleveland hotel suite in 1934.
The play centers on the visit of the great tenor Tito Merelli (Robert Welch) to star in the Cleveland Grand Opera Company's production of Othello. Of course this being an almost too zany farce it all goes crazy real fast as an apparent suicide, a cover-up, mistaken identities and sexual romps propel the characters into, well, a madcap, zany farce. This kind of play is very difficult to pull off. Last year's Rumors is a better play and the cast worked Neil Simon's script till it ticked like a Swiss watch. If Rumors were a 45 Lend Me A Tenor would be the B side. But a worthy B side it is. (I'm showing my age. Do kids today even know what 45s were?)
The script was penned by Ken Ludwig, the same guy who built Crazy For You out of old Gershwin tunes. He seems to have an affinity for the 1930s. So does Scott McGowan, who played the husband in last month's I Do! I Do! With a fresh haircut he looks even more at home in the first half of the 20th Century. He could be Surflight's Edward Herrmann. (Herrmann is the guy who's made a career of playing FDR and did Dodge commercials for a few years.) McGowan is a likable lead and his voice is up to the operatic dabbling the role calls for.
The role of Merelli also calls for a little opera singing and Robert Welch pulls it off too. His Merelli is a larger than life interpretation of every opera singer cliché except for his weight. Merelli is a man of great appetites but Welch is trim.
Kate Konigisor, Eugene Jerome's mother in Surflight's Brighton Beach Memoirs really chews up the scenery as Merelli's wife. In a play that's already a few more standard deviations away from reality than most plays are, Kongisor's ranting, yelling, fuming Maria comes perilously close to being a cartoon character. When Tito eats a few too many Phenobarbitals he's mistaken for dead. If Konigisor's Maria ate them she'd be out running a marathon.
Alan Van and Stephen Foote as the nervous opera director and star struck bellboy respectively add to the zaniness without going over the top.
But the gem in this show is Surflight's own Pook Pfaffe, who mostly toils behind the scenes as the company's resident photographer. Those are Pook's pics you see in the reviews on this site. Every once in a while they let her step onstage and it's always a treat. I first saw her in 2002's first show, Mame, as "Vera Charles, first lady of the American stage" and I liked her then. I often see this soft-spoken and unassuming woman in the lobby before show time, when I remind her to send me some pictures. To see her transformed into Julia, a would be seductress of a certain age was a revelation. I have to confess I had forgotten how good Pfaffe is. She's as vampy as she wants to be and she's a real talent.
So it ain't Neil Simon. It's merely silly, sexy, and speedy. And worth seeing.
Evening performances run through October 4, 2003 at 8:00 p.m. with matinees on October 2 and 5 at 2 p.m.