Theater review: ‘Lend Me a Tenor’ at Theatre Downtown

Theater review: ‘Lend Me a Tenor

By Elizabeth Maupin
Elizabeth Maupin on Theater

Whenever theater critics hear the word farce, they tend to launch into a litany of what you need to make a farce funny. You need comic timing. You need a delicate touch. You need a set with plenty of doors that are sturdy enough to be slammed.

What you really need, though, is one main thing – a handful of actors who are gifted enough to carry such a preposterous contraption on their backs, and to make it look easy all the while.

That’s evident at Theatre Downtown, where the reliable farce Lend Me a Tenor glides along thanks to a few gifted members of the cast.

Lend Me a Tenor isn’t exactly traditional fare at Theatre Downtown, which started out 20-plus years ago as a home for cutting-edge work and evolved into a good place to see American classics. Nowadays, the programming tends to be more directed toward getting butts in seats – and if producing mainstream entertainment like Lend Me a Tenor will pull people in, then that’s what you’re going to see.

Farce may not be director Frank Hilgenberg’s forte (look back to the American classics for that), and the cast he’s assembled doesn’t always fill the bill. The physical production is also on the erratic side. James Zelley’s hotel-suite set works well enough for 1930s Cleveland (and those doors do slam effectively). But Fran Hilgenberg’s usually felicitous costumes are a bit of a mystery this time around: Except for one or two dresses, they all look 21st-century modern, and you get no sense that the time is 1934.

Does it matter? Not a whole lot – not if you’re content to sit back and relax, as all the curtain speeches tell you these days, and watch the farfetched plot unfold. The problem is that the Cleveland Grand Opera is about to present Otello with a world-famous tenor – and said tenor (nicknamed Il Stupendo) comes to town, takes a few too many sleeping pills and is thought to have given up the ghost. The opera’s nebbishy factotum volunteers to step in, and pretty soon there are two guys in blackface running in and out of those doors, with lots of lovesick women in hot pursuit.

The original 1989 Broadway production relied on two Otellos with terrific singing voices (Ron Holgate played the tenor, Tito Merelli, and Victor Garber played his stand-in, Max). Here, director Hilgenberg seems to have cut back some on the music the two actually sing, and neither of his actors is at his best as an opera soloist.

That doesn’t matter too much because there’s some smooth comedy going on – from Jackie Prutsman as Maggie, the starry-eyed ingénue who wants one last fling before she commits to Max; from Cira Larkin as Maria Merelli, Tito’s very long-suffering, extremely combustible, uber-Italian wife; and especially from Adam DelMedico as the downtrodden but canny Max.

DelMedico, who was one of the stars of Theatre Downtown’s Altar Boyz, is in full Matthew Broderick mode as the intrepid Max: He brings out the character’s puppyish qualities, but he also finds a way to prove that Max is the smartest guy around. And he and Prutsman make a great duo – sweet, innocent and as full of sexual tension as two not-quite-engaged young people can be.

The rest of the cast works in fits and starts: Will Barbara is full of piss and vinegar as Merelli (although he’s hardly of a size to be called Il Stupendo and sounds more New York than Italian), and Mike Kendrick has some funny moments as a fey bellhop. Larry Stallings comes across as rather too mild-mannered as the opera’s impresario and Victoria Burns not quite rapacious enough as the local diva. In the role of the company’s chief patron, Sarah Benz-Phillips seems so bent on playing the grande dame that she doesn’t quite connect with anybody else onstage.

Some of those missteps and some leisurely timing can get in the way – but not when DelMedico appears onstage in the most preposterous-looking blackface makeup, and when Barbara turns up looking just the same. (It helps that anybody who kisses one of those guys winds up with a stripe of very dark-brown makeup down the middle of her face.) Farce is silly, the folks in this production are telling you, and we’re perfectly happy to look silly getting it across. For those few moments, silly is as good as it gets.

‘Lend Me a Tenor’
What: Theatre Downtown production of Ken Ludwig farce.
Where: Theatre Downtown, 2113 N. Orange Ave., Orlando.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, through May 16 (also, 2:30 p.m. May 16).
Cost: $18 general, $15 seniors and students.
Call: 407-841-0083
Online: theatredowntown.net.

Photos: Top right: Larry Stallings, Adam DelMedico and Will Barbara. Middle left: Adam DelMedico and Jackie Prutsman. Bottom left: Adam DelMedico and Victoria Burns. Photos by Rick Trux/Theatre Downtown.

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