Lend Me a Tenor
I have to admit that Ken Ludwig's play is cleverly constructed, a classic mistaken-identity farce. It's set in 1934, when this kind of screwball thing was being written in Hollywood seemingly every month. The set-up is that the famous Italian tenor Tito Morelli is coming to Cleveland to do one performance of Verdi's Otello. Otello seems an odd choice to base a play around, but it has two advantages: 1) The music is not all that well known, so when an excerpt is sung by Tito and Max (the assistant to the producer of the opera), we don't have expectations of what it should sound like; and 2) It lets Tito and Max both put on blackface and an Afro wig and the same costume, and, stretching credulity beyond the breaking point, everybody else in the cast confuses one for the other. Almost all the comedy derives from this mix-up.
Now, this could work if Tito and Max look at least sort of alike. But here we have the matinee-idol looks and hunky body of J. Ryan Montenery as Tito, and the quite otherwise of Warren Asa Wilgus as Max. Maybe Max could pull off impersonating Tito during the performance of Otello because the audience is far enough away, but when people who know him well and are within kissing distance of his face still mistake him for Tito--well, I just couldn't stop thinking how preposterous this was, not so much in a "ha-ha-ha" way as in a "gimme-a-break" way.
Everybody on stage tries really hard, the set by Barbara Bock and costumes by Judi Buehler are fine, the direction by Jane and Cy Hoffman is well thought out, and yet the whole is a little logy, something less than the sum of its parts. Maybe not enough flamboyance and histrionics, maybe the metronome needs to be set to a snappier tempo. The last two minutes, though, when the entire play is recapitulated in fast motion, are hilarious.
Warren Wilgus, despite the drawback that he looks nothing like J. Ryan Montenery (not many people do), is immensely likable as Max, the only really good character in the play, and he has a very nice singing voice to boot. Mr. Montenery does a fun Italian accent, but otherwise doesn't seem to have much of a flair for comedy. I know he can act because I saw him in The Rainmaker, in a role that was perfect for him; this role, though, is not. However, the scene in which Tito teaches Max how to sing the role of Otello (the best moment in the play) is executed very well and touchingly by both actors. (Verdi's music helps, and there is not enough of it in the rest of the play.)
As for the rest of the cast, Thom Hinks as the producer is all scowls and shouts, with occasional excursions into Paul Lynde territory. It's a valid interpretation, but I think some slow burns would have been more comical. Colleen McClure as Maria, Tito's frustrated and jealous wife, is over-the-top in a good way, making the most of her "Italian-ness"; unfortunately for us, it's a small role. Gene Dunne as the bellhop is animated and does well with Italian and singing, but, again, it's a small role (I think it's been abridged).
Tasha Waters (as the sleep-her-way-to-the-Met soprano, not afraid to crescendo her cleavage), Augie Alley (as the high-society dame), and Avery Scott (as the not very faithful object of Max's affection) are all good at what they are doing, but none of them are hysterically funny. I think it's the writing.
It's tough to put a finger on what makes a comedy work vs. what makes it almost work. Sometimes it's the audience. I found myself smiling a lot, but rarely laughing out loud, and I think most of the audience was in the same boat. The exciting but also frustrating thing about live theater is that every performance is a little different. One night you might catch a great show with a really up audience, and the next week it's a letdown.
One thing you can count on, though. There's a lot of truth in that old showbiz aphorism: "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard."
Lend Me a Tenor by Ken Ludwig is being performed at the Adobe Theater in Albuquerque through June 9, 2013. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 2:00. Info at www.adobetheater.org or 505-898-9222.