Ambler’s Act II Playhouse is closing out their current season with Ken Ludwig’s screwball farce LEND ME A TENOR—already extended until June 7th! Ludwig is America’s premier farceur, with several Broadway hits to his credit, but TENOR is by far the most well-known and the most frequently produced. Former Act II Playhouse Artistic Director Bud Martin returns to direct the insanity.
Set in 1934, the action (and there’s plenty of it) takes place in a Cleveland hotel suite. Famed Italian tenor Tito Merelli, aka “Il Stupendo,” is coming to town to perform Otello for the Cleveland Grand Opera’s annual fundraiser. The company head, Saunders, has concealed the fact that they are in dire financial straits and they need his star power. Complications ensue when Tito’s fiery wife, Maria, walks out on him (fed up with his cheating) and he is inconsolable. An accidental overdose of tranquilizers causes him to appear to be dead. Saunders enlists the help of his hapless assistant, Max—who is in love with the boss’ daughter, Maggie (who hopes to have a fling with Merelli). The scheme the two come up with to cover up Merelli’s supposed demise creates zaniness of operatic proportions.
I have to confess, I played Maria many years ago—so I knew going in that this is a very funny play. And Act II does not disappoint. Martin and his talented cast have amped up the energy and created some terrific physical comedy. Martin specializes in this kind of show, having worked on successful productions of Boeing, Boeing here and in New York. Of course, Ludwig’s script is one of the best farces around, so they have terrific material to work with. Ludwig goes for broke with the craziness and the laughs are almost non-stop. But in order for farce to work, the actors have to play it for real. They have to be 3-dimensional people reacting in realistic ways to a crazy situation. This bunch nails it.
The first person we see is Maggie Saunders, an earnest sweet young thing who can’t wait to meet Merelli. She loves Max, but wants to experience more of life before she settles down—and she wishes Max would stand up to her father more. Eileen Cella is absolutely lovely in the role; she has the perfect mix of sweet and spicy, and knows just how to set up the laughs. As Max, relative newbie Michael Doherty is hilarious; he gives the character a wonderfully quirky awkwardness that works perfectly—and his singing rocks, too. He does a great job of showing Max gaining confidence as the story progresses thanks to the tutelage of Merelli. Multi-award nominee Jeffrey Coon is fabulous as “Il Stupendo”. Coon is an amazing singer, so the arias he performs with Doherty are fabulous, and his acting chops ain’t too bad either. He is great fun to watch playing this larger than life character.
Current Act II Artistic Director Tony Braithwaite plays the head of the opera company, Saunders. It’s a part tailor-made for his talents. He is very adept at physical comedy and the “slow burn”. And he puts those skills to great use here. Tracie Higgins gives a solid performance as the fiery Maria, making the most of this 2-scene role. The arguments she has with Tito are a hoot. Act II Managing Director Howie Brown hits just the right notes as an annoying, pushy bellhop, and Linda Friday is lovely as Julia, head of the opera company’s board—and her dress is a knock-out. Rounding out the ensemble is Mariel Rosati as soprano Diana, who’s sleeping her way to the top. She gives this bombshell role a nice hint of vulnerability that makes the audience like her.
As always, the technical work on this production is top-notch. Dirk Durossette has created a beautiful hotel suite, getting all the Art Nouveau/Art Deco details of the 1930s just right—and managing to fit the required 6 doors to slam on Act II’s intimate stage. As we waited for the performance to start my companion and I had a great time studying all the elements of the set. Avista Custom Theatrical Services created the lovely upholstered pieces that are put to hilarious use by the cast. Great lights and sound are provided by James Leitner and John Stovicek respectively, and Alisa Sickora Kleckner has designed some beautiful 30s style costumes—my favorite is Diana’s post-fundraiser red gown.
LEND ME A TENOR is Ludwig’s homage to the great comedies of the 30s like Bringing Up Baby. It is almost 30 years old, but is still as fresh and funny as when it was first produced. I guarantee you will have a terrific time laughing your cares away at this highly energetic production. It’s well worth the schlep to Ambler to catch this gem.
LEND ME A TENOR
by Ken Ludwig
Directed by Bud Martin
May 7—June 8, 2013
Act II Playhouse
56 E. Butler Avenue
Ambler, PA 19002