by Kelly Ferjutz, special to ClevelandClassical.com
Playwright Ken Ludwig may not have invented The Three Tenors, but they surely do owe him a debt of gratitude. His brilliant farce Lend Me a Tenor ran for ten months at the Globe Theatre in London’s West End after opening in March, 1986. Two years later it came to Broadway, and has quite possibly never been out of production since then. Not surprising, as Mr. Ludwig really ‘gets’ tenors, who are definitely not your ordinary run-of-the-mill performers, singers or artistes, whichever title you prefer. And never forget ‘temperamental!’
When the official Three Tenors (José Carreras, Placido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti) appeared in Rome in 1990, the resulting recording became the best-selling classical album of all time according to the Guinness Book of World Records, 2010. It wasn’t solely operatic in nature, but who really cared, when, in addition to beloved opera arias, we were also treated to such lush renditions of Neapolitan songs, American pop standards, and Broadway theater tunes?
The equally-brilliant follow-up to Lend Me a Tenor is A Comedy of Tenors, now playing at the Allen Theater in PlayhouseSquare. To celebrate the theater’s 100th anniversary, the Cleveland Play House and director Stephen Wadsworth have provided a truly sumptuous production for this world premiere presentation.
You don’t have to have recently seen the earlier play to appreciate this sort-of-sequel, although some of the characters appear in both plays. It’s quickly accessible to the audience, as the characters are easily able to stand on their own identity.
The first play was set in Cleveland in 1932. The new play is set in Paris in 1936. The former mayor of Cleveland, Henry Saunders (played by the bigger-than-life blowhard Ron Orbach) is now an opera impresario, assisted by his son-in-law Max, (Rob McClure) a tenor who happens to be married to the boss’s daughter Maggie, who is back home in the US about to have their first child.
As in the earlier edition, the famous Tito Merelli (the wonderful Bradley Dean, who seems to be capable of being in two different places at the same time) is to be the star of the forthcoming concert, which will also feature the renowned Swedish tenor Jussi Björling, and a newer Italian star, Carlo Nucci (the dishy Bobby Conte Thornton). Unhappily, Björling’s mother has just died, so he cancels less than eight hours before curtain time, leaving an emergency opening for another tenor.
Enter Max, who is more than capable, but first, there are hijinks galore, not to mention a few surprises. It’s absolutely amazing how very simple things – a reluctant zipper, for instance, or mistaken identity – may provide all sorts of fodder for gossip or worse.
Mayhem ensues when Tito’s daughter Mimi (the luminous Kristen Martin) and Carlo are discovered in a state of partial undress. They’d been hidden in plain sight, and manage to escape almost undetected, except for Carlo’s zipper. His helper turns out to be Maria, Mimi’s mother (the volatile Antoinette LaVecchia), who tries to help the struggling Carlo, and is secretly observed by Tito. He is unaware of the budding love area between Mimi and Carlo, and convinced that Maria has been (or is being) unfaithful, also withdraws from the concert.
While feeling sorry for himself, Tito discovers a former flame is also in Paris. This is the scintillating Russian soprano Tatiana Racón (the sinuous Lisa Brescia). Before he can set out to locate her, she discovers his presence in Paris, and appears at the hotel, hoping to stir the embers of their past affair.
The first act ends with a marvelously full-throated rendition of the Brindisi from Verdi’s La traviata by the three excellent singer-actors. The entire tenor of the show (sorry!) changes after this performance. Once the audience realizes that these guys can really sing, it suddenly changes into something very real. We know it’s still a farce, but now it’s a much more believable one.
Once the set-up is complete, the playwright allows an even higher degree of mayhem to enter the scenario. The gorgeous art deco set by Charlie Corcoran was obviously built to withstand a hurricane: there are several doors leading to various rooms in the hotel suite which are continuously slammed – hard! – as characters rush here and there in an attempt to be seen or not seen, as the case may be.
As the characters leave or enter the suite, of course, there must be a bellhop to assist with the luggage, one Beppo, who hails from Venice. He is a virtual physical twin to Tito with an amazing tenor voice. So, one tenor out, one tenor in, and the chaos continues. As Maria and Tatiana initiate romantic interludes with the handsome Beppo (one to the left side and one to the right side) the besotted man can’t quite make up his mind about the best direction to take. In between he does an amazing and witty bit as a not-very-good ventriloquist whose ‘dummy’ is the boiled tongue that is part of the hotel’s buffet spread.
William Ivey Long, the six-time Tony award-winning costume designer, has produced wardrobes for each actor that are not only beautiful, but also period-appropriate, a perfect match for the set. Fortunately, director Stephen Wadsworth has both theater and opera in his résumé, and with a tincture of fairy-dust added to the timing element, keeps the fast pace and belly laughs constant and fresh. Although the three tenors have appeared in singing roles previously, the efforts of vocal coach John Simmons should not go un-noticed, either. The standing ovation at the end of Act One was truly and richly deserved by all participants.
Additional technical support was provided by David Lander, lighting designer; Joshua Horvath, sound designer, and Jennifer Matheson Collins, stage manager. The Co-producer is the McCarter Theatre Center of Princeton, New Jersey.
A Comedy of Tenors continues through October 3. For tickets or more information, visit the Cleveland Playhouse website or call the ticket office at 216.241.6000.
Photos by Roger Mastroianni. From top to bottom, and left to right: Bobby Conte Thornton (Carlo), Ron Orbach (Saunders), Bradley Dean (Tito), and Rob McClure (Max); Bradley Dean (Tito) and Lisa Brescia (Tatiana Racón); Bradley Dean (Tito) and Lisa Brescia (Tatiana Racón); Bobby Conte Thornton (Carlo) and Kristen Martin (Mimi); and Ron Orbach (Saunders), Bradley Dean (Tito), and Bobby Conte Thornton (Carlo).
Published on ClevelandClassical.com September 18, 2015.
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