While West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park has entertained audiences with their wacky takes on classic literature and drama (“The Complete Works of Wm Shakespeare, Abridged” and “The Hound of The Baskervilles” as just two examples), the theater has moved into a higher echelon with their current production of Ken Ludwig’s ingenious contemporary door-slamming farce,“Lend Me A Tenor,” which plays through February 9.
The success of any farce depends on the ability of a director to maintain an appropriate pace without milking the humor and a game cast up to quick movements, fast costume changes, and rapid-fire dialogue required by the script. For this production, the Playhouse has found just the right director in Jerry Winters, an adjunct professor of acting and directing at Eastern Connecticut State University and an acclaimed director here in Connecticut and around the country. He provides the work with the necessary momentum to keep the audience’s attention and elevate the delicious tension caused by its hectic plot that centers around disguise and mistaken identity. He has also incorporated any number of inventive ideas into the production that add significantly to the evening’s enjoyment.
At the same time, his eight person cast delivers consistently entertaining performances, making this one of the overall better casts ever assembled for a Playhouse production. It is clear that they understand the needs of a good farce and are able to accommodate its crazy demands without sacrificing character development or a character’s grounding in reality.
The plot centers around a Cleveland grand opera company sometime in the 1930’s and its general manager Henry Saunders, preparing for a new production of Verdi’s “Othello” which will feature the famed Italian tenor, Tito Merelli, who is also known as “Il Stupendo.” The short-tempered Merelli is accompanied by his wife Maria, who is even more short-tempered and jealous than he is. A whole line up of people arrive at Morelli’s hotel suite to try to meet the singer before the opera, including Saunders’ daughter Maggie, the opera’s board chair Julia, the show’s soprano Diana and the hotel bellhop, an aspiring opera singer hoping to be discovered by Merelli. The task of minding the temperamental opera star and assuring his arrival at the theater falls to Max, Saunders’ much put-on assistant, who is also Maggie’s erstwhile boyfriend. When Diana walks out on Merelli in a fit of pique and the singer passes out due to a mixture of medication and alcohol, the ingredients for the farce are finally in place and Winters and company do not disappoint.
Perhaps the most rewarding surprise in the show is Jeff Gonzalez’s Max, in a performance that sort of sneaks up on you as the evening progresses. Max starts out as an earnest young flunky, obviously smitten by Maggie, who gradually reveals a knowledge of opera and ultimately an ability to perform as well. Though subject to Saunders’ orders and whims, Gonzalez manages to show an out of control Max in full panic mode who later morphs into a model of competence and aplomb.
Robert Wilde offers an appropriately broad interpretation as Merelli, demonstrating the tenor’s dramatic emotional states, his oversized opinion of himself and, accompanied by a slightly exaggerated Italian accent, his irresistible appeal to women of all ages. His Merelli gets to employ a great deal of athleticism throughout the play, whether he’s jumping over furniture to keep his wife from leaving, trying to manage an unexpected opportunity to simultaneously seduce two of his admirers or finding himself inexplicably on the run from the police.
Winters has cast both Gonzalez and Wilde for their singing abilities as well, as they quite impressively perform a Verdi duet from another opera, Don Carlos. It’s nice to hear two live voices joined in song rather than have characters attempt to lip-sync to a recording—and these two have very fine voices indeed.
Mike Boland is the harried but ingenious manager Saunders, who easily moves from being authorative with his employees to obsequious to his opera star and his board chair to being overprotective of his grown daughter. Boland is especially amusing when his character is confronted with a crisis: he can go from exasperated and defeated to eagerly devious in a matter of seconds, signaling the change with the largest sign of relief across his face.
Lilly Wilton is both demure and cunning as Maggie who’s not sure she’s ready to settle down with Max once Il Stupendo arrives on the scene. Walton very effectively conveys her character’s desire to be free from her father’s influence, along with her impetuousness in trying to get Merelli alone. Katie Vincent does a fine job as the diva Diana, imbuing her character with a haughty confidence in both her singing and seductive abilities.
Ashley Ford fills the long-suffering Maria with the right amount of Italian anger and sarcasm as she delivers her husband an ultimatum he’s shocked to receive. Donna Schikle inhabits board chair Julia with the right level of top-tier sophistication and fan girl awe in her scenes with Merelli. Corrado Alicata gets some decent comic moments as the ambitious bellhop, especially as he shows off his own singing chops in an attempt for an impromptu audition.
Christopher Hoyt has provided “Lend Me A Tenor” with an attractively detailed set depicting a two-room suite in an art-deco period hotel with a comfy, elaborate living room and a spacious bedroom. As suitable for a farce, there are five doors ready for hiding behind, escaping through or for slamming, along with a hallway heading out amidst the audience. Costume designer Erin Kacmarik has outdone herself in dressing the cast in period evening wear and, as needed, undergarments, along with two identical “Othello” costumes, since Il Stupendo conveniently travels with two sets. Aaron Hochheiser’s lighting helps to focus attention on one room or the other, depending on the circumstances, and Ryan Kelly’s sound design assures that the recorded music does not overwhelm the occasional live singing by the evening’s tenors. My only qualm is that the room’s lovely old fashioned telephone rings much too loudly, particularly for a hotel phone.
What is impressive is how Winters assures that the lengthy set up early in the first act flows so smoothly and enjoyably that you are not aware that a lot of what happens is necessary for the payoffs later in the play. This is in part due to Ludwig’s writing which provides a fairly steady amount of humor and interesting character development in the early stages, as well as to Winters’ and his casts’ ability to create recognizable, appealing characters. That they are successful makes the later scenes all that more delightful. A minor quibble is that the curtain call could be tightened a little bit, with the director paying closer attention to assuring that the visual elements in its staging more closely resemble some of the actions of the previous two hours to make the situations more identifiable. But it ultimately doesn’t matter because what has indeed gone before has been so giddily entertaining and rewarding. I know that the term “intelligent farce” may strike some as an oxymoron, but if you visit the Playhouse on Park, you’ll understand just what I mean.
For information and for tickets, visit the Playhouse’s website at www.PlayhouseonPark.org or call the box office at 860.523.5900.
To keep up with theatrical events in Connecticut, consider subscribing to the Hartford Arts Examiner by clicking on the word “Subscribe´ at the top of the column. A copy of each new article will be sent directly to your inbox. To keep up with theatrical activities in western Massachusetts, consider subscribing to the Springfield Art Examiner.