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A Comedy of Tenors — McCarter Theatre Company at the Matthews Theatre

comedy of tenors -- interiorKen Ludwig cannot keep his hands off of tenors.

Thank goodness!

While his marvelous new farce, “A Comedy of Tenors,” does not refer significantly to his lasting 1989 favorite, “Lend Me a Tenor,” or make it necessary to know that show, Ludwig cheers fans and followers by bringing four of the outstanding characters from that opus — opera singer Tito Merelli, his wife Maria Merelli, Figaro-turned-Otello Max, and impresario Saunders — from Cleveland to 1936 Paris for more rollicking escapades that chronicle the mayhem that ensues in the last hours before Saunders is about to produce a between-war opera spectacular the entire cultural world is anticipating. Ludwig once again proves to be a master architect of the sophisticated farce, and his play is as elegant as it is uproariously slapstick.

Two tenors is not enough for “A Comedy of Tenors.” Ludwig gives us five. One is a Swede we never see but whose departure as he suddenly drops out of Saunders’s extravaganza sets up some viciously funny one-liners. Another is an ebulliently big-spirited bellhop named Beppo, first encountered singing like Lanza while on routine rounds delivering bags in the hotel where Saunders is lodging his star performers. Beppo bears a striking resemblance to Merelli and may, in a tieback to “Lend Me a Tenor,”  have to pass for him during the grand concert, Tito’s fabled temper, and equal nature to forgive or recant, leading him to be in or be out of Saunders’s spectacular at whim. Then there’s Max, the all[purpose factotum who was the secret toast of a Cleveland opera gala in Verdi’s “Otello” and now has a budding singing career to go with his job as Saunders’s assistant and punching bag. The last is a strappingly handsome young American with Italian parents and an Italian name, Carlo Nucci, who is challenging Merelli’s place as the prime matinee idol in the operatic world and, coincidentally, is having a torrid affair with “Il Stupendo’s” daughter. Nucci is a late entry to the concert, when lucky timing puts him in position to replace the fleeing Swede, and is the source of much of Merelli’s comic displeasure.

Farce occurs unabated on the McCarter stage. Besides doors to slam and sofas to tumble into, there are balconies in the French hotel where “Tenors” is set. Gymnastic Rob McClure, playing Max, and supple Kristin Martin, as Merelli’s daughter, Mimi, do some entertaining gainers from that second-floor terrace in attempts to escape being seen, stabbed, choked, you name it by either Merelli or Saunders.

There’s also a need for several quick changes and hasty entrances and exits Bradley Dean, in addition to having the credible voice necessary to play Merelli, doubles superbly as Beppo, as convivially silly and lighthearted as Tito is explosive and jealous. Dean has a genuine field day going from the poised, polished, phlegmatic Tito to the anything-goes Beppo, who is particularly delighted when mistaken identity gives him the chance to have sex with two willing woman in two separate hotel rooms at the same time. This being a farce, he mates with the one that won’t raise a fuss when she learns the truth, but the scene and the set-up is hilarious, and Dean plays it beautifully. The dead-ringer gambit also allows Ludwig ample opportunity to confuse the heck out of Maria, Mimi, and Carlo.

Everything is Ludwig’s play is hilarious. The playwright is a master of meshing related plots, having one character finish another character’s sentence in a way that is a hoot, creating false impressions that befuddle characters and create suspense, giving the easily angered a chance to slap their frustrations away, using the language barrier and hesitation to grand comic effect as someone summons the words different from the smutty innuendo we anticipated (as in “Lend Me a Tenor” when Maria describe something that begins with a “p” and grows in proportion with ardor, and finally arrives at the word “passion”), and providing a musical good time, as happens when Dean, McClure, and Bobby Conte Thornton — talk about adorable — launch into a three-part version of Alberto’s (and Violetta’s) drinking song from Verdi’s “La Traviata, “Libiamo ne’lieti calici,” with enough brio and excitement to elicit several rounds of bravis from a packed opera house.

NealBoxLudwig is top form. The cast, including a soprano, Lisa Brescia as the flirtatious  Russian diva, Tatiana Rancón, is on fire made hotter by spit-spot timing, funny pratfalls, fabulous double takes, and superb singing. All is kept is order by one of my candidates for the world’s best director, Stephen Wadsworth, who stages this farce with the same care and creativity you see in his direction of classical pieces and operas. Wadsworth knows when to quiet the riotous for a bit of pathos and when to go full tilt on the riot. Never does a door open without some delight occurring because of it. Mayhem, as it ensues, stays clear and enjoyable because Wadsworth and his cast don’t allow to miss any joke, verbal, physical, or facial. Wadsworth’s range doesn’t surprise as much as it adds to the director’s luster. In plays by Marivaux and Beaumarchais, highlights of Emily Mann’s 25-season reign as McCarter’s artistic leader, Wadsworth created brilliant tragicomic effects, unique to him, through stylization, heightening  a character’s comic traits or turning the pathetic to the heartbreaking by skillfully conceived theatrical pauses, revealing looks towards the audience, and a gratifyingly self-conscious way of showing the pain or ridiculousness a character is endures or engenders while his audience justifiably laughs at this character’s suffering or feels tangible sympathy or concern as that character is drawing legitimate laughs. Wadsworth represents the pinnacle of directorial artistry, and it’s good to know his sense of fun and depth of character stays constant in a standard farce that moves at a breakneck pace and doesn’t have time for dramatic subtlety. Wadsworth’s is as inventive as always, “A Comedy of Tenors” employing all kinds of intricate details while moving at a steady fast pace. The talented McCarter cast makes all seem effortless and natural. Dean and Antoinette LaVecchia, in a marvelous turn as Maria, helps with passionate gestures, expressions, and line readings. Rubber-limbed McClure insures physical comedy will be done with aplomb. Thornton and Kristen Martin, as Mimi, are great sports, popping up in their various states of undress as Wadsworth introduces their characters via an hilariously effective coup de theatre. Thornton and Martin will also make a scene in which Mimi repeatedly wallops Carlo into a comic delight.

Ludwig knows his tried-and-true and isn’t afraid to draw on the structure of “Lend Me a Tenor” for his new opus. Once again Saunders, now a former mayor of Cleveland in addition to being an opera impresario, has to produce a major international concert featuring the greatest name in opera, Tito Merelli. Once again, Merelli is late. He still likes to drink too much and “eats-a,” as Maria says, like-a a pig.” Ludwig builds on the way Merelli will predictably react by having arrive in Paris not knowing he’s going to appear with the man destined to take his place as the opera fan’s favorite, Carlo Nucci. Tito’s first source of irritation is being mistaken for Carlo at the hotel’s reception desk. Even Saunders doesn’t know how Carlo will figure into his concert program when “A Comedy of Tenors” begins. Merelli, likewise, is unaware his daughter, Mimi is having an affair with Carlo. Marital squabbles, misunderstandings, and rapprochements abound. Max, who begins “Lend Me a Tenor” a put-upon factotum and ends up an opera star, holds both roles in “A Comedy of Tenors.” He remains Saunders’s go-to person while holding a career as a tenor. You don’t have to be at all familiar with “Lend Me a Tenor” to appreciate Ludwig’s new play, but having seen it gives “A Comedy of Tenors” extra texture and more jokes for you to savor.

comedy of tenors -- coverNew characters in “Comedy of Tenors” are inspired, as is Ludwig’s writing for LaVecchia’s Maria. Beppo arrives in time to give novelty to Ludwig’s second act, as well as to give Dean an even greater role and the audience a characters they can’t wait to see often. You hear about Carlo Nucci before you see him, but once you see him, Thornton in tighty whities making love to Mimi on a suddenly unveiled sofa, you hope he, too, will make frequent visits to the stage. Even dressed. Brescia’s entrance as Tatiana is another breath of fresh air, not only because it means more plot complications, but because Brescia adds a Russian accent to the collection of Sid Caesar-esque dialects heard on the McCarter stage. Her pronunciation of some words is a belly laugh on its own, especially when she adds syllables or makes simple “h’s” into throaty “ch’s.”

Antoinette LaVecchia’s Maria is an absolute gem. LaVecchia not only mines comic gold with her on-the-mark delivery of Maria’s punch lines but, temperamental though she is, she serves as the reasonable link between plots involving Tito and Carlo. In some ways, she is the theatrical key to the first act, and LaVecchia fulfills that responsibility with aplomb. In the dozen or so times I’ve seen “Lend Me a Tenor,” I never saw a Maria who could match Tovah Feldshuh’s level of venom and zest from the original Broadway production. LaVecchia is a Maria of equal fire with a comic arsenal that entertains and an ability to show the sensible woman Maria is underneath her jealous rages.

Rob McClure showed Philadelphians his mettle early on in “The Bom-bitty of Errors,” and “Austentatious” for 11th Hour (for each of which he received Philadelphia Theater Critic’s Awards). He must like appearing in shows that parody Shakespeare’s title because all of talents as a singer, as a contortionist, and as a comic are used to their utmost in “Comedy of Tenors,” as they were in “Bom-bitty of Errors.” Always a happy presence in comic roles, McClure brings a refreshing lightness to Max who can take Saunders’s hounding and scolding because he knows he will also take the stage as a celebrated tenor and share it with his friend and mentor, Tito Merelli.

Bobby Conte Thornton, with the lock of thick dark hair falling over his left eye, is more than just a looker. He matches McClure and Dean in comic timing and quick takes as much as he complements them when they take stage as The Three Tenors. Kristen Martin is wonderful as Mimi, asserting herself admirably as she garners attention among a slew of more colorful characters that have flashier roles. Martin adds to the comedy when she arrives at the hotel in the French peasant dress she will wear as a costume while appearing opposite Norma Shearer in “Marie Antoinette,” a role Mimi auditions for after making playful love to Carlo. (She literally has to leap out the hotel window and run across the Champs de Mars in near nakedness to make her appointment.) Ron Orbach doesn’t have the vocal purity of his co-stars — He sounds as if he’s in a different show. — but he is a cantankerous, pragmatic Saunders who keeps the comedy hopping.

Stephen Wadsworth always finds way to infuse the most basic comedy with heart. He plies that magic once again with “A Comedy of Tenors.” The timing that is his hallmark comes through in this production, as does his uncanny knack for foreshadowing every joke so the laugh is bigger when the punch line comes.

Ludwig gets wonderful mileage from his punch lines. I don’t think I’ll ever hear the words, “Would you like some tongue?” in the same way again, just as I have made a habit of saying, “It’s not you, Max” when someone doesn’t fit in a given situation and quoting, “In my town they have a saying gas (from food) never killed anyone, and believe me, in my town, they’d know” from “Lend Me a Tenor.” For “A Comedy of Tenors,” Ludwig gives Tito a new bit, expressing his feelings in words he takes from opera libretti, causing other characters to respond, “that’s from ‘Boheme,'” or “wait a second, that’s ‘Tosca!'”

Charlie Corcoran’s Paris hotel set is good enough to move into. Its stage left window includes a to-die-for view of the Eiffel Tower, I’d say from the perspective of The Trocadéro. The furniture is exquisitely chosen, and you have Beppo to bring you what you need from the lobby. William Ivey Long designs as gorgeous gown for Tatiana, a wonderful tight-fitting shirt for Carlo, and formal wear that’s worth its name and looks pricey. Shad Ramsey made various fights into larks, although you wonder how Carlo can sing when Mimi gets done slapping him after she misinterprets one situation and has another she needs to reveal to him. Music is essential to Ludwig’s play and Joshua Horvath’s sound design incorporates all well.

“A Comedy of Tenors” runs through Sunday, November 1, at the Matthews Theatre of the McCarter Theatre Company, University Place and College Road, in Princeton, N.J. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $110 to $25 and can be obtained by calling 609-258-2787 or by visiting http://www.mccartertheatre.org.

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