October 21, 2015

Doors Slam, Pants Drop, as Opera Stars Hit High C’s, In “A Comedy of Tenors,” Ken Ludwig’s Frenetic New Farce

Photo By Roger Mastroianni

At dinner Saturday night before the show, with some old friends I hadn’t seen for a few months, the conversation was not unexpected. With a pleasant balance of seriousness and humor, we caught up on the latest news in our middle age (late middle age?) lives: our children and their challenges in school and in starting out in the world after college; other friends and family, and how difficult it can be for adults to get along with each other; politics and our worries about the dysfunctions in our government; the state of our environment, and what sort of world we’re leaving for our children; mortality, aging, and and how fast the decades have sped by.

Ken Ludwig’s A Comedy of Tenors, playing at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre through November 1 in its world premiere production, revisited none — at least not in any depth — of the above concerns. The rest of the evening was a complete escape into the world of pure, old fashioned, unabashed farce.

In A Comedy of Tenors, Mr. Ludwig’s sequel to his 1986 Lend Me a Tenor (a huge hit in London, New York, and elsewhere), the goal is entertainment. The consistently sterling, high-energy cast, under the savvy direction of Stephen Wadsworth, with a top-flight production crew, ensures that that goal is achieved.

Seven slamming doors, witty one-liners, sexual innuendo, romantic couples, mistaken identities, sight gags, an action-packed plot — with one mishap after another but none of great consequence and little doubt that all will end happily, are some of the tasty ingredients of this comedic brew. Mr. Ludwig, also author of Crazy for You (1992) and Moon Over Buffalo (1995) on Broadway and Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery at McCarter last spring, knows his craft.

The setting is a luxurious Paris hotel suite in 1936, just three hours before “the concert of the century,” featuring three tenors, is to take place in an adjoining soccer stadium. The characters are over the top — even for opera singers and their volatile wives and lovers. The circumstances are extreme, with one catastrophe following on the heels of another, as the moment approaches for the concert to begin.

Produced in association with the Cleveland Play House, where it debuted last month, A Comedy of Tenors picks up two years after the end of Lend Me a Tenor and revisits several of the characters who appeared in that play.

The legendary star tenor Tito Merelli (Bradley Dean) is late. He finally arrives at the hotel suite with his outspoken wife Maria (Antoinette LaVecchia), but he is in a constant state of crisis — first an apparent mid-life crisis over his waning fan appeal, then raging jealousy over what he mistakenly perceives as his wife’s infidelity, then a fit of paternal fury over his daughter Mimi’s (Kristen Martin) love life.

Meanwhile Mimi, a rising professional actress, is enjoying a passionate affair with Carlo (Bobby Conte Thornton), a handsome young tenor whom Tito sees as a rival in his opera career and in his family life. Amid the chaos as she seeks to avoid her father’s wrath, at one point Mimi finds herself taking a dive off the upstage balcony in her undergarments, then running across the soccer stadium field before eventually returning to the hotel suite to assert her claims.

Saunders (Ron Orbach), international impresario, consummate businessman, and former mayor of Cleveland, is determined to pull off this concert of the century no matter what. “What else can go wrong?” he asks at one point during the evening. We know the answer: “everything.” Rob McClure’s Max, Saunders’s son-in-law and long-suffering assistant, who has proven himself an opera star, is a thoroughly sympathetic character. He finally prevails as a voice of something like reason in the final minutes of the play, then finds out his wife has just given birth to a baby boy.

Signing on as the third tenor (or is it the fourth?) as Saunders panics over the disappearance of Tito and Carlo, is Beppo the bellhop, who appears at the door to the hotel suite singing “O Sole Mio,” and quickly finds himself thrown into the middle of the confusion, which is richly exacerbated by the fact that he bears an uncanny resemblance to Tito.

And just in case anyone needs another dose of farcical material and pandemonium, who should appear but Tito’s old girlfriend, the fiercely sensual (“Men are being afraid of me, I am not knowing why”) Russian starlet Tatiana Racon (Lisa Brescia).

Before the final curtain the farcical shenanigans are further fueled by jokes about the French, jokes about opera (with self-pitying Tito using lines from famous operas to lament his plight), sight gags that provide a plethora of jokes about undergarments and a large cow’s tongue (on a food tray provided for Tito), and a generous allotment of pursuits, pratfalls, and double takes. And if you missed anything, the whole play is reenacted in 90 seconds in a tour-de-force curtain call (like the curtain call for Lend Me a Tenor)!

Mr. Dean is particularly adept in his leading role as the self-absorbed, temperamental opera star, then as the eager bellhop Beppo (with mustache added until he shaves it off in order to impersonate Tito) — two clever, quirky, delightfully ludicrous characters, with impressive vocal skills. How he travels in a matter of seconds from the stage right doorway, where Beppo emerges from a bedroom with Tatiana, to the stage left doorway, where Tito has been in bed with Maria, is nothing short of a miracle of speed, set design engineering, and creative costuming.

Mr. Wadsworth, director of The Figaro Plays at McCarter 19 months ago and frequent director at McCarter over the past 23 plus years, has rehearsed and fine-tuned his ensemble of high-powered actors with precise timing of words and actions to maximize the humor. His extensive experience, in addition to play directing, as director of operas around the world and director of opera studies at Juilliard serves him well here. The “tenors” show off flamboyantly as credible opera stars. A first-act spontaneous rehearsal of “The Drinking Song” from La Traviata was a show-stopper on Saturday night, bringing loud applause and bravos for Tito, Carlo, and Max.

Charlie Corcoran’s lavish, beautiful art deco set serves both practical needs (the seven strategically placed doors, a feeling of both spacious elegance and intimacy and much more) and aesthetic concerns, with appropriate lighting by David Lander and an array of colorful, creative, versatile period costumes by William Ivey Long.

In a recent article for American Theatre magazine, Mr. Ludwig described the creation of A Comedy of Tenors: “The writing of A Comedy of Tenors has turned out to be more fun than I’d ever imagined. I thought I had said goodbye to the characters in Lend Me a Tenor when the play first opened on Broadway so many years ago, but A Comedy of Tenors has allowed me to spend time again with some of my very best friends. It’s been like going to the best college reunion ever. So when’s the next one?”

Familiar with Lend Me a Tenor or not, audiences will enjoy this raucous, madcap, masterful celebration, and undoubtedly look forward to the next.