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St. Louis by Richard Green

Lend Me a Tenor
Ozark Actors Theatre

Also see Richard's review of The Visit

Lend Me a Tenor
Maggie McVey and
Blane Pressler

First things first: the theater in question is actually 100 miles southwest of St. Louis, in Rolla, Missouri. But, that also puts it just 20 minutes past "wine country," along Interstate 44. So you may want to make this a two-part excursion: Rolla first for theater; and then the St. James area for a visit to the vineyards as you work your way back into town. And, if you do, you'll have made a very good decision indeed.

But, for God's sake, don't go to wine country first or you'll just be the "laughing too loud" people at Ken Ludwig's popular farce, in this sleek and adorable new production. Director Jason Cannon, who's always shown a genial relentlessness for mining character development in past shows, has put together a cast that makes delightful pictures out of many of Ludwig's jokes, and turns much of the playwright's physical shtick into subtle relationship statements, too. Nothing goes to waste. And that just gives us a whole lot more to fall in love with than you might ever expect.

Blane Pressler and Maggie McVey are the young lovers, thwarted, not just by her father (his boss), but also by her own burning desire for one last fling before settling down. Lanin Thomasma is electric as the overbearing father, looking every inch the Depression-era impresario: always just seconds from the boil. And Allan Baker is the legendary tenor sweeping (late) into Cleveland Ohio, to help them all celebrate a big night at the opera. Julie Venegoni is ultra-stylish as Baker's fiery Italian wife, whose hot temper pushes the great singer into an accidental drug overdose and, well, you can't really give out any more "spoilers" after that.

Except for the fact that Benjamin Wegner is brisk and impish as the starstruck bellhop, and Sabra Sellers is stunning, on the prowl as the ambitious soprano. And Jenny Adams does two remarkable things as the socialite who helps run the opera company: she's funny, and even bawdy, when required; and she never tries to pass herself off as a Margaret Dumont type, though the ditzy socialite role does lends itself to that cookie-cutter interpretation. Now and then, with a bizarre alacrity, everyone breaks into a feverish chase, or Mr. Pressler is turned into a human ping-pong ball between lovely young women, or Mr. Baker must mime his way through some very extraordinary events, but the most exciting thing about it all is how much they make you care.

The pace and pressure are excellent throughout. Mr. Pressler, as the hapless young assistant, brings a touch of Arthur Lake doubt and panic to the role, showing a total lack of vocal support early on; and Ms. McVey, as his reluctant fiancée, somehow suggests a very young Carol Burnett, in her wild passion for the famous tenor. And when Mr. Baker, as the tenor Tito Merelli, bursts into song for the first time in the story, it's a little like standing before the Grand Canyon, beholding a great natural wonder. How he also manages to inspire the young Mr. Pressler's "Max" to greatness is just another great part of a great show.

Concluding Thursday through Sunday through June 26, 2011, at the Ozark Actors Theatre, 701 North Cedar (at Seventh), in Rolla Missouri. In the final weekend, matinees are Friday, Saturday and Sunday at two p.m., and the Thursday evening show is at seven p.m. For more information call (573) 364-9523 or visit them online at www.ozarkactorstheatre.org.

Cast
Max: Blane Pressler
Maggie: Maggie McVey
Saunders: Lanin Thomasma
Maria: Julie Venegoni
Tito Merelli: Allan Baker*
Bellhop: Benjamin Wegner
Diana: Sabra Sellers
Julia: Jenny Adams

Crew
Director: Jason Cannon
Scenic Designer: Lex Van Blommestein
Costume Designer: Mary Woll
Costume Intern: Becky Fortner
Props Mistress: Laura Light
Lighting Designers: Michael Sullivan, Bess Moynihan
Sound Designer: Patrick Burks
Stage Manager: Jim Welch*
Assistant Stage Manager: Allison Whitehall*
House Manager: Karl Lutzen
Box Office Manager: Gina Draker

* Denotes member, Actors Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States

Photo by Jason Cannon


-- Richard T. Green

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