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Lyrics and Laughter: A Night - or a Matinee - at the Opera

Ed Rampell: Playwright Ken Ludwig’s farcical Lend Me a Tenor is a romantic comedy with many tried and true crowd-pleasing aspects.
Lend Me A Tenor

J. Paul Boehmer, Catherine LeFrere, Davis Gaines and John Shartzer (Photos: Michael Lamont)


Playwright Ken Ludwig’s farcical Lend Me a Tenor is a romantic comedy with many tried and true crowd-pleasing aspects. For instance, much of the second act hinges on that old theatrical saw found as far back as plays by the Roman dramatist Plautus, not to mention a number of Shakespeare’s works: The mistaken identity. One character is a screaming queen - a Bellhop played with suitable panache by the scene stealing Jeff Skowron - whose swishy-ness elicits gales of laughter.

There is even a form of Blackface - although in the case of Tenor, this is not supposed to be derived from minstrel shows but rather from the fact that a performance of Verdi’s Otello is a central plot point for this comic two-acter. In the story set in 1934 Cleveland, the renowned Italian tenor Tito Merelli, aka Il Stupendo (Davis Gaines, who played the eponymous role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera 2,000-plus times on Broadway), arrives in Ohio for a one night only performance as the North African general in the operatic version of the Bard’s immortal drama Othello.

Lend Me A Tenor

John Shartzer and Leslie Stevens

Tito is considered to be a stereotypical Italian womanizer, which triggers clashes with his likewise caricatured jealous, fiery wife Maria, played by Catherine LeFrere, whose face calls to mind a cross between those Italian actresses Monica Vitti and Mariangela Melato, while her figure suggests Sophia Loren’s buxom body. Mama mia! (Of course, this subtext mirrors Othello, that Ur-text on the green-eyed monster of jealousy.)

Max (John Shartzer), a wannabe singer, woos a reluctant Maggie (Kelly Dorney), who is lukewarm to his propositions and proposals because the virginal Midwesterner yearns for fireworks of the sort she believes the Italian singer could provide. Meanwhile, Maggie’s overbearing father Saunders (J. Paul Boehmer) is Cleveland’s opera house General Manager, who Max works for as his long suffering flunky. Saunders, in turn, is answerable to haughty Julia (humorous Colette Kilroy, who is actually much younger than her grey-haired character and whose husband, the great Spotlight actor Jamey Sheridan, attended opening night), the Opera Guild’s rather pretentious bourgeois chair.

Lend Me A Tenor

John Shartzer and Davis Gaines

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All this reach a boiling point, stressing Il Stupendo out - but, as they say, the show must go on. A discerning theatergoer can see where this is all heading from an aisle away, as Tenor telegraphs all its punches. Amidst lots of plot complications, judging by audience reaction, hilarity ensues.

To be fair, there is enough merriment to go around and the proceedings are amiably, ably directed by Art Manke. Scenic designer Tom Buderwitz’s set realistically conveys in detail a hotel suite, where all of the onstage action transpires (and perspires). David Kay Mickelsen’s costumes not only capture the period, but also the opera world, in particular Othello’s apparel. While Tenor’s playbill goes to great lengths to try to be sensitive by explaining the use of dark makeup on Caucasian actors as an opera tradition for playing the role of Shakespeare’s/Verdi’s Moor, it stay may raise some eyebrows. (Methinks it’s time to retire this trope and say: “Bye bye, Verdi!”)

Lend Me A Tenor

Davis Gaines, J. Paul Boehmer, Catherine LeFrere, Colette Kilroy, Jeff Skowron, Leslie Stevens and Kelley Dorney

Tenor premiered in 1986 on London’s West Side and opened in 1989 on the Great White Way, where it garnered nine Tony nominations, including for Best Play. Philip Bosco won in the Best Actor category, while Jerry Zaks snagged the Best Director Tony. Among Ludwig’s other plays is Moon Over Buffalo, which lured Carol Burnett back to Broadway in 1995 for the first time in 30 years, scoring the comedienne a Tony nom. (Fun fact of the day: In 2002 an Austrian film version of Tenor was made named Othello Darf Nicht Platzen. Who knew?)

Due to some sexual situations, lingerie and the like, Tenor would probably receive a PG type of rating. Opera fans may enjoy Tenor’s operatic milieu, as well as some lovely live singing (accompanied by recorded music - sorry Toscanini). For undemanding ticket buyers who want to put their minds into neutral and have good fun (and fuggedabout the never ending election!), La Mirada Theatre’s Tenor production is just what the doctor ordered. As Bugs Bunny quipped: “What’s opera, doc?”

Lend Me a Tenor is being performed 7:30 pm on Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8:00 p.m. on Fridays; 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. on Saturdays; and 2:00 p.m. on Sundays through November 12 at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada, CA. For info see: or call (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310.

ed rampell

Ed Rampell