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Lend Me a Tenor — Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival

Tenor -- coverWhen a piece of a door breaks off after apparently being slammed one time past its tolerance, actor Perry Ojeda, playing an internationally renowned opera singer in “Lend Me a Tenor,” sneers at the molding in his hand and ad libs, “Cheap hotel!” while staying completely in character.

When that same door, which seems to have chosen Ojeda to vex, refuses to close at a critical moment in which it must provide privacy, Ojeda lets it remain ajar and sticks his tongue out at it.

When the door, insistent on life imitating farce, again won’t close, Ojeda dismisses it with a wave of his hand. When he finally gets it to shut, as every other member of the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival cast manages to get it to do, Ojeda looks at the audience in a self-satisfied way and elicits appreciative applause.

“Lend Me a Tenor” blessedly does not break the fourth wall and refer to its audience, but Ojeda handled the dodgy door with assurance and wit. He made the portal’s obstinacy into a routine, and he did with a nice combination of subtlety and panache. Just as he plays Tito Merelli, the celebrated tenor in Jim Helsinger’s production of Ken Ludwig’s sturdy, well-crafted farce.

Ojeda stands out among Helsinger’s ensemble because he alone finds that sweet spot at which comedy and the theatrical business at hand blend. Ojeda’s Tito is funny while being natural and never becoming bombastic. He serves Ludwig’s farce better because he never pushes his material or overdoes it. There’s an ease about Ojeda’s approach that lets comedy happen without forcing it. His lines seem spoken, not emphasized to milk a laugh. His physical demeanor is calm so that reactions register greater than if the actor goes into constant high dudgeon. As an actor playing his part, Ojeda conveys the confidence and bearing you’d expect from a star like Tito Merelli.

His performance is a highlight in a show that also boasts fine work from Jacob Dresch, Carl Wallnau, Anthony Lawton, and Deanna Gibson.

Helsinger’s entire cast makes “Lend Me a Tenor” the hilarious romp Ludwig composed, but Ojeda gets extra points for living his part and getting his laughs without getting too broad or exaggerating his movements or reactions as if size is what makes a scene or situation funny.

I enjoyed Helsinger’s “Lend Me a Tenor,” but I found it less non-stop in hilarity than most of the productions I’ve seen. That’s because lines were given second place to business. Lines were also barked, as if loudness and Walter Matthau-like whiplash speed would improve them.

Ludwig’s dialogue doesn’t need improvement. It’s clockwork. The humor is built in. It has to be played in a way in which the audience shares the joke, especially when a line is sarcastic or contains a double entendre. Heaving the joke in the audience’s direction is going overboard.

Carl Wallnau, and especially the inexhaustible Jacob Dresch deserve to be commended for their performances. As an opera company manager and his timid factotum, the pair is funny and entertaining. They do what they are told to do with expert precision and, in Dresch’s case, a modicum of grace disguised to look clumsy. My feeling is they could have been just as effective if Helsinger cut their physical play and vocal volume by half.

One of my favorite moments in “Lend Me a Tenor” comes when Max, the factotum, who Dresch portrays as being more nervous and nebbishy than usual, suggests he can go on in the title role of an opera gala benefit performance of Verdi’s “Otello” if the tardy Merelli fails to show up for his performance.

Wallnau, as Henry, the opera director, gives his subordinate an ironic look. He stares at him, ubiquitous cigar between his lips, removes the cigar, and quietly says, “Otello?”

He continues by saying, “Otello, Max?” and goes on by describing the Moorish hero — big man, huge, with a voice that commands the respect of all in his hearing and a presence that paralyzes all around him with respect, admiration or fear. “That Otello, Max?,” Henry asks.

“It isn’t you,” his putdown of Max’s idea ends.

The sequence is surefire in its venomous, vituperative nature. Henry’s irony grows and become more sarcastic, more obviously logical, as the manager adds comparisons to the focal character that inspired Shakespeare and Verdi to Max. Done right, the scene should elicit gales of laughter.

And, at PSF, it does. But it could have been funnier.

Instead of being arch, and letting the bite of Ludwig’s escalating disdain for Max’s idea swell until it hits his zenith, Helsinger directs Wallnau to turn the passage into a “slowly I turn” tirade in which he is constantly reaching for Max’s allegedly worthless throat while Dresch, as Max, cowers back, fear flooding his florid face.

The scene is comic. The size of Henry’s temper and the equal enormity of Max’s cowardice earn laughs from the audience.

But they overdo the material that works better as a hiss than with a yell and should be belittling and degrading more than frightening.

By the time Wallnau has finished his diatribe, he’s hovering over Max, whose back is on a divan and who looks as if he’s expecting to meet his doom.

I won’t say the scene doesn’t work, because it does. I suggest a more subtle approach would have been preferable. The physical business was less a good companion for Ludwig’s lines than a sign of mistrust for them. The sequence is overdone, overplayed, and that is a minor dilemma throughout Helsinger’s production. He mistakes activity for farcical behavior, and while the physical is important in farce, it’s not the only element that matters.

Only Perry Ojeda finds that right blend of blatant comedy and smart subtlety that is the hallmark of the best farce.

Wallnau and Dresch are excellent in their parts as directed. Dresch is as adept as acrobatics as he is at singing and playing comedy. But both men are put through paces that look like comic action but are unnecessary. “Lend Me a Tenor” has enough big moments in it. It doesn’t need extra ones, especially in passages that would play just as well without complicated hijinks.

Eleanor Handley, as the soprano who sings Desdemona in the gala performance, and Susan Riley Stevens, who plays the chair of the Opera Guild, are also victims of Helsinger’s penchant for overdoing. Each of these actresses have better second acts, because their purpose in scenes is more defined. In the first act, they both come on a little too strong, especially Handley, who luckily has the later scenes in the play to show her mettle. Suzanne O’Donnell, as Tito’s wife, fed up with his infidelities and inattention to his health, never recovers from the temperament she displays upon entrance.

Believe me, these parts call for some size. They are laden with moments when hysteria reigns supreme.

That is exactly why the comedy has to be measured. Farce works best when it takes place amid a core of reality in which common sense and normal practice goes somehow awry. Push farce too far, and you can have an entertaining romp, but often at the expense of a more satisfying comic experience.

“Lend Me a Tenor” is a sophisticated farce. It takes place in the realm of the arts, even as practiced in Cleveland. Its characters are well-groomed and accustomed to being around the rich, famous, and glamorous. Ludwig gets several good laughs from Henry’s Philistine approach to his job as manager while establishing Henry as an impresario who could charm his Board into having a gala and casting Tito Merelli.

Artists have tempers, and dudgeon has it place, but big effects should be used sparingly. Henry’s reaction to news that Tito may not be able to perform is the right occasion to unleash the limits of physical comedy. More scenes at PSF could have been funnier if they were approached more lightly and with less self-conscious intention to knock the audience’s collective socks off. If every scene is directed at the same fever pitch, how does one know what really calls for pandemonium and what for lower grades of business?

That said, let’s go into the virtues of Helsinger’s “Lend Me a Tenor.” The production does, after all, overcome its flaws to give folks a good time.

Carl Wallnau looks every bit what you’d expect from Henry Sanders. He is large, distinguished, and shows Henry to be obviously schooled in how to impress donors to support the opera.

Wallnau is adept at conveying the authoritative, businessman side of Henry. He issues commands to Max and admonishes his daughter, Maggie, who comes to Tito Merelli’s hotel room to meet the great tenor in spite of her father telling her to keep her distance from it. Maggie, you see, has a crush on Tito since he kissed the palm of her hand at a previous meeting.

I may deem the physical nature of his performance excessive, but he plays his high-strung scenes well. The reason I think Helsinger engineered the exaggerated mayhem is both Wallnau and Dresch have a tendency to overplay their lines in the same way, Wallnau as if he’s roaring with anger and contempt, Dresch as if he is running out of breath, like the hapless sister who is afraid to speak in front of her mother in Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers” or like Lou Costello when he’s seen a ghost. Dresch seems to make a litany of extending lines in a way that makes it seem danger is afoot. Cutting that habit by three quarters would make his reading just as effective and much less affected.

Dresch is a wonderful physical comedian. For a sturdy looking guy, he is lithe and rangy with a cat’s talent for wriggling out of clinches and other situations that is often quite impressive and entertaining.

Max seems to always be getting himself into a pickle, and Dresch helps his character literally squeeze out of some of these jams. It’s fun to see the maneuvers he makes to free Max from places it may be inopportune or intrusive for the character to be. Dresch is also quite gymnastic, doing more than one backflip and seeming to be able to propel himself in any direction at will.

Many of the scenes in which Dresch is called on to be flexible have the comic effect they warrant. Farce does call for getting oneself out of tight places. It’s when Helsinger forces physicality that I object.

Dresch proves to be quite the versatile performer as Max. Although he speaks in a whiny voice, he had a marvelous singing voice and uses his instrument to advantage when showing Tito how well he sings while taking a lesson from the master. In the second act, Dresch rises to the stature necessary to pull off a nervy comic ruse. In his make-up he looks the part he must assay and shows a handsomeness he’d been hiding as the humble Max.

The actor does all he’s directed to do excellently. He lets you see the man Max could be, both in his dealings with Tito, his resolve to go through with a dangerous assignment, and his wooing of Maggie, the woman he intends to marry no matter what Henry may think of the match.

This is a bit out of school, but if I was Dresch I would keep the wig I wore in the second act or grow and cut my hair in that style. The look was that suitable and made that much of a difference to the actor’s persona.

Deanna Gibson joins Perry Ojeda in being comparatively subtle and natural with her character. You believe Maggie lives and is not just a character type Ludwig invented to fill the requirements of his play. Gibson gives her a naïve sweetness coupled with an eager woman’s resolve.

Gibson is also great in scenes in which she has to handle her father and use daughterly skill to get around his objections and bluster.

Susan Riley Stevens has the right kind of big moment in the second act when she enters a room and realizes Tito is there and unaware of her presence. Stevens’s character, Julia, wants to persuade Tito to make an appearance at the gala. In preparation for her mission, she takes stock of her situation and hikes up her breasts in a way that is natural and funny.

Stevens gets caught in the frenzied feel of the first act, and her Julia seems a tad strident. In the second, she establishes Julia as more of an individual and becomes winning as the character.

Eleanor Handley, as Diana, a diva who has ambitions to leave Cleveland for New York by impressing Tito with her talent, also comes on too strong in Act One. You think you’re seeing a type instead of a full-blooded character (randy through Handley is in this act).

Handley is slyer and more measured in the second act. You see more genuine determination from Diana. Handley also shows the singer’s worldliness as she practices her wiles on Max and Tito.

Anthony Lawton is another who knows that less is more in farce. He plays a bellhop who only wants to sing for Tito or, at least, get his autograph. Lawton is funny every time his character joins the action and is especially good in a scene with Wallnau and O’Donnell that involves tipping.

Suzanne O’Donnell is a reliable actress and an experienced comedian who seems out of her element as Tito’s wife, Maria. I half wish she and Stevens had traded roles. O’Donnell would be more suited to Julia, and Stevens would have gotten more mileage from Maria, who needs to be more cosmopolitan and fashionable than O’Donnell seems able to muster.

Bob Phillip’s set is gorgeous, a sumptuous hotel suite in tans and browns. It is not Phillips’s fault if the carpentry on the door and the closing mechanism were not up to par on the night I attended. Helsinger takes farce to mean that every door has to be slammed, and I think the door in question disagreed with him. The furnishings in the room were as tasteful as the color palette, and the molding and other appointments were just right for a luxury hotel of the 1930s. I wish the bedroom had not gotten as messed as it was. I feared for the actors racing among pillows and bedspreads strewn haphazardly on the floor.

Amy Best did a fine job costuming the men. I particularly liked her ensemble for Otello, wig, beard, and the decision to use little black face make-up and have Ojeda and Dresch maintain a café au lait complexion included.

The women’s clothes were a mixed bag. I liked the print dress Best chose for Diana in the first act. Handley wore it quite handsomely. Diana’s sexy variation on basic black in the second act and Maggie’s sunshine yellow frock were also well done. Henry says Julia’s bangled dress makes her look like the Chrysler Building. I agree, but I think Best went overboard in fulfilling Ludwig’s lines. The dress for Maria was all wrong. It didn’t look European or sophisticated enough. Also, I think Maria’s fur should be a bit showier and more conspicuously stylish and expensive.

Matthew Given did a fine job with sound design, as did Thom Weaver with lighting.

“Lend Me a Tenor” may be the most solid comedy of the last 25 years. Ludwig meticulously crafted all of its twists and wrote marvelous lines and riffs, including Maria’s description of passion and Tito’s revelations about his hometown in Italy’s relationship with gas.

“Lend Me a Tenor” runs through Sunday, August 3 at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival in the Labuda Theater Complex at DeSales University, 2755 Station Road, in Center Valley, Pa. The show is performed in repertory with PSF’s production of “Macbeth,” so showtimes are scattered. They are 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 29; 8 p.m. Wednesday, July 23, Friday, July 25, and Saturday, August 2; 7:30 p.m. Sunday, August 3; and 2 p.m. Saturday, July 26, and Sunday, July 20 and 27. Tickets range from $53 to $25 and can be obtained by calling 610-282-WILL (610-282-9455) or by going online to http://www.pashakespeare.org.

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