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Lend Me a Tenor — Delaware Theatre Company

From left: Tony Braithwaite, John Plumpis, Jonathan Silver

From left: Tony Braithwaite, John Plumpis, Jonathan Silver

“Lend Me a Tenor” is so well crafted, every line, plot twist, and gimmick is an invitation to laugh.

     Employing everything from confusing twin Othellos to rapidly spoiling shrimp mayonnaise, playwright Ken Ludwig provides a gag every ten seconds, and they all work. They are all surefire sources of comedy, and they are all exploited for good-natured, high-style hilarity by the Delaware Theatre Company which not only fields a nimble, expressive cast but treats its audience to a darling and sumptuous art moderne set by Dirk Durossette.

     Naturally that set has its share of doors, six of them. “Lend Me a Tenor” is a farce where people come and go with remarkable speed, and a lot depends on one character not being seen by another until the optimum comic moment. Timing is important to the success of a production, and led by Tony Braithwaite as a frazzled opera manager on the night of a fundraising gala, the DTC troupe is pinpoint.

     Braithwaite’s character, Henry Saunders, is beset by Murphy’s Law. What can go wrong will go wrong, and the various calamities Ludwig so intricately plots cascade into non-stop merriment. As in most farces, mistaken identity, misunderstood situations, frayed nerves, personal agendas, and individual tics intersect to keep things busy and funny. Though produced in London in 1986 and on Broadway in 1989, Ludwig keeps “Lend Me a Tenor” timeless by setting it in a bygone period, 1934, revolving it around a classic opera, and honing elemental jokes and bits that can generate laughs from audiences centuries from now. The play is already the most produced modern farce, and there’s no reason why it should not endure.

      “Lend Me a Tenor” unfolds on the night the Cleveland Grand Opera is holding a gala, the centerpiece of which is a performance of Verdi’s “Otello” starring the Pavarotti of his time, Tito Merelli, a prima donna, ladies man, and ultimate pro. As lights go up in the hotel room reserved for Merelli, tension is high. The star attraction  has not shown up. Saunders, the opera general manager, shows he will be blustering, temperamental type, yelling and making sarcastic comments to underlings, such as his assistant, Max, while being smooth and diplomatic around Merelli, also dubbed “Il Stupendo,” and the chairwoman of the opera’s Board. Max cowers to Saunders while romancing his daughter and harboring a secret desire to have a singing career of his own. The daughter, Maggie, is attracted to Max but wildly infatuated with Merelli, who once sent her into ecstasy by kissing the palm of her hand.

      The plot that drives the farce is getting Merelli on stage. Never mind that faulty refrigeration is turning the gala’s supper into a botulism feast. If Merelli does not appear and sing with his advertised brilliance, the gala will fail and, worst than being at wit’s end, Saunders and Max will be out of their jobs.

       Add to the mix Merelli’s sneering, jealous wife, a Board chair will won’t take ‘no’ for an answer, the Cleveland Opera’s Desdemona, who sees her career burgeoning if she pleases Merelli, and a bellhop who auditions, badly, with Rossini’s “Largo al Factotum” as he schleps bags, answers phones, serves champagne, delivers messages, and cadges for tips. Sporadically addressed amid the mayhem is a romance Max wages as he tries to impress Maggie and convince her to marry him. Ludwig is as inventive in finding opportunities for this couple to intersect as he is in all the convoluted aspects of “Lend Me a Tenor.” Nothing goes to waste in his script.

       Or in the Delaware Theatre Company production. Director Bud Martin is aware of all the material Ludwig gives him to mine, and he doesn’t miss his chances, verbal or physical. Timing is essential to “Lend Me a Tenor,” and Martin’s production is fast while taking time for some shtick to play, for instance Braithwaite, as Saunders, using the convenient hands of a comatose Merelli to hold open a suitcase or wipe up some gook.

      Punch lines are also prime, and Martin’s cast gets the most out of some gems, particularly when Braithwaite explains to Jonathan Silver’s Max why he may not be perfectly cast as Otello, when John Plumpis, as Merelli talks about something the people in his native Italian town know well, and when Tracie Higgins, as Merelli’s wife, Maria, fumbles to find the English cognate for something all men have that begins with a ‘p,’ starts out small, and grows when excited.

      Although the women play key catalytic roles, the men in the cast have the responsibility of carrying “Lend Me a Tenor.”

       Twice in 2013, first at Act II Playhouse and now at DTC, Martin has been lucky in his choices for Saunders. Max, and Merelli.

       Tony Braithwaite is a gifted farceur. The timing and quick one-liner of farce suit his acting style which, depending on the role of course, leads toward the caustic glare and the sardonic line reading.

       Braithwaite also has control. Like an artist who uses dark and light colors to create positive and negative space, Braithwaite knows when to slow down or to relax the pitch of his character’s dudgeon. Some of the calmness sets up the  next flare of temper, as when Saunders speaks softly and sympathetically to Max about something the young man cannot muster the nerve to do, then explodes at him with both barrels and orders him to do it.

      In general, Braithwaite’s is a well measured comic performance that influences the proceedings even when he’s off stage. Saunders is running the show, giving the marching orders, and at times, the comedy in “Lend Me a Tenor” comes from what he expects as opposed to what we see is happening. For instance, Saunders gives Max strict directions about how to mind Merelli to keep him ready for the performance. You can guess what happens to those strictures. There’s also a wonderful moment in which Saunders suddenly realizes where he’s seen a dress his daughter is wearing.

      I do have one minor bone to pick with Tony. In both the Act II production and this one at DTC, when he refers sarcastically to his opera patrons as the “cognoscenti,” Italian for people in the know, he pronounces it “co-no-sken-tee,” when the correct pronunciation is “cone-ya-shen-tee.” I can’t tell whether Braithwaite is adding to Ludwig’s joke by purposely mangling the word, or if he just doesn’t know the term, and neither he nor Martin is aware enough to get it right. In either case, it glares as a false note. Maybe I’m just sensitive to pronunciation. I also recoiled a little when Eileen Cella, as Maggie, the daughter of an opera manager and a traveler to Italy, says La Scala, with both “a’s” sounding like the first “a” in salad in stead of the “a’s” sounding like the “o” in solid. What can I say?  I rankle easily.

        Braithwaite adapted well to the cast changes between the Act II and DTC outings. Jonathan Silver and Jonathan Plumpis both take a different approach to their parts than Michael Doherty and Jeff Coon. The great thing about theater is both takes on the performances are successful.

        Silver is a winning Max who grows before our eyes from a bumbler and order taker to a man of supreme confidence who will do the commanding. The actor playing Max has to be more than a deft comedian. He must convincingly sing arias by Verdi and Bizet. And he must ardently woo Maggie when he gets the chance. Silver makes all the shades of Max’s role believable. He makes you root for Max in all of the several endeavors he is assigned or chooses to undertake.

        Plumpis, on first sight, doesn’t convey the power and nobility of Otello. His sincerity as an actor, the way he shows Merelli being comfortable in situations the way most stars and performers of experience are, and his talent as a physical comedian quickly change that impression. When he dons the magnificent costume Alisa Kleckner has designed for Otello, he takes on the majesty of the character. The transformation is remarkable. Plumpis also sings beautifully. His duet with Silver has to show the great spirit of Tito Merelli,and Plumpis does.

       All theater, but especially farce and opera, asks audiences to adhere to the words of Samuel Coleridge and suspend disbelief. Too fine an inspection of ingredients would ruin enjoyment of the overall dish. In “Lend Me a Tenor,” mistaken identity is prime to the second act comedy. Silver and Plumpis being different heights and having different body types is the kind of thing you, and the characters confusing them, suspend. ‘”Lend Me a Tenor” involves putting on makeup, and if the application isn’t similar, it can’t fool people. With Silver and Plumpis each dressing as Otello (and each looking dashing in Kleckner’s costume), it may be advisable for them to agree on how and where they don their makeup.

       For some reason, all of the women in the cast, except for Marcia Hepps as Julia, the Board chair, seemed to me to start off slow and build into their parts.

        Eileen Cella is a canny Maggie. She can be sweet and innocent when dealing with Max and her father, someone who acknowledges her inexperience and wants adventure and romance before settling into something as committed as marriage, and she can be conniving and resourceful when trying to get the attention of Merelli. Cella is fine from the minute she launches into her character, but she also opens the production by pretending to perform an aria she hears on the radio. Mouthing the words and making grand gestures with her hands and arms, Maggie simulates the histrionics seen on an stage. I found it off-putting that Cella didn’t mouth in synch to the recording. It’s plausible that Maggie would be offbeat, or that she doesn’t know the words or tempo of the aria, but watching an actress as out of kilter as Cella is like watching a movie that hasn’t lined up with the picture with the soundtrack. What Cella does is acceptable but uncomfortable as an opening vignette.

      No matter how agitated Maria is, no matter how exasperated by Tito and his womanizing, Tracie Higgins may overwork her scowl and disdain when she first enters. As her performance progresses, and her Italian accent and background kick in, along with a worldiness that outflanks the characters from Cleveland, Higgins is a grand contributor to “Lend Me a Tenor’s” comedy.

       Sarah Litzsinger’s is a tale of two performances. As Diana, the diva who plays Desdemona and has ideas Merelli may catapult her career from Cleveland to the Met or Covent Garden, Litzsinger seems to play her first scenes more by the book than as a full-bodied character. When she makes her second appearance, something changes. She is a more determined vamp and authentically sexy instead of playing at it. The Litzsinger we see in the bedroom is far more effective than the Litzsinger we see in the parlor. Luckily, the meat of her part comes in later sequences, and the actress, remembered with fondness from her bright turn as “South Pacific’s” Nellie Forbush last season, aces those passages.

       Marcia Hepps unveils a lot of facets to Julia. She is both society matron and siren. She can be equally flirtatious and insistent. She can be like an aunt to Maggie and a spur to Henry. Hepps makes all of this believable, letting you see Julia as a pillar of Cleveland cultural society and as a woman with a libido.

       Howie Brown is a regular nudnik as the break-seeking Bellhop. He scores as a physical comedian and makes the most of the flippant lines aimed at Henry.

        I realize I have nitpicked some of what happens on the DTC stage. My cavils never for once kept me from enjoying the production and reveling in both Ludwig’s genius and the skill which Braithwaite, Silver, and company entertain. “Lend Me a Tenor” is a tonic for anything that ails. It is smart, clockwork farce with sharp one-liners and rollicking scenes, such as when Braithwaite’s Saunders alternatively shakes and throttles the soundly sleeping Merelli in an effort to wake him. It makes the most of its characters and situations, all of which are shine with comic glory in the hands of Bud Martin and his cast. Intelligent silliness is a great form of entertainment, and the DTC mounting of “Lend Me a Tenor” provides its generously.

      “Lend Me a Tenor” runs through November 3 at the Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street, in Wilmington, Delaware. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Tickets range from $50 to $35 and can be ordered by calling 302-594-1100 or going online to www.delawaretheatre.org.

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