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STAGE REVIEW : A Sleek and Funny 'Lend Me a Tenor'

January 21, 1992|SYLVIE DRAKE | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

It's funny, it's fluff, it's full of mistaken identity, slamming doors, double entendre, split-second timing. It stoops to stereotype, it creaks, it groans, it conquers. It's Ken Ludwig's "Lend Me a Tenor," which surfaces in a sleek new production at the Pasadena Playhouse only two months after making a self-respecting Southern California debut at the La Mirada Theatre in La Mirada.

In case you didn't get it, this is grand silly-funny stuff written by an entertainment attorney who clearly knows whereof he pleads. The play focuses on what happens when Italian tenor Tito Merelli, "Il Stupendo," knocks himself out with too many pills and can't be revived in time to fulfill a one-night engagement with the Cleveland Grand Opera.

If you're apoplectic impresario Henry Saunders, with a lot more at stake than tons of shrimp mayonnaise, do you cancel your $50-a-ticket gala and let the mayo turn green? No, you borrow a tenor, preferably in-house, preferably your sidekick Max who thinks he can sing, so you can practice a little deception on the audience and let the show go on.

You can imagine where this takes us, since all the women in this play and one daunting, singing bellhop are fixated on Tito and, before we know it, there are two Titos running around in identical Otello costumes. Everyone barely misses everyone else on various merry chases through bathrooms and hallways and closets.

It's a wild ride, riddled with good recorded singing, bad spoken Italian and the occasional really rotten one-liner ("Your suite?"--"So are you, I'm sure"). But Ludwig has a real eye for visual comedy and director David Saint knows how to capitalize on it, keeping everyone wound up and going in circles at a peak of frenzy.

Gary Beach is Tito (the only actor to repeat a role he created at La Mirada) and Robert Picardo is Max, the meek impersonator who, before the evening's over, is roaring like a lion. (Picardo, in this case, is not an Italian name for nothing.) Between them they carry the show. But Paul Dooley's by turns cool and frantic Saunders is nothing to sneeze at either. He's mastered the comic technique of raising one eyebrow at a time and never abuses his bluster, not even when he has to deal with the bald effrontery of Ron Fassler's confrontational bellhop.

The women are slightly less vibrant than the men, though not Anne de Salvo, whose hot-tempered Signora Merelli is part Imogene Coca, part seething coquette. Peggy Pope clucks appropriately as Julia, the matronly chairwoman of the Opera Guild, but Laura Hughes as Max's fiancee Maggie and Jean de Baer as the aggressively ambitious diva Diana both seem too sophisticated to be duped by all the shenanigans. Director Saint even makes room for some ambivalence at the end, leaving us with the feeling that Maggie may have gone along with the joke rather than having been fooled by it all along.

One small bone to pick: In an early scene Max and Tito decide to have a glass of wine and go through the motions of getting a corkscrew and pulling the cork from a bottle that already has an obviously pulled cork. It's a waste of deception and effort.

This Playhouse production has imported the sumptuous Art Deco set Tony Walton created for the Broadway production. It is lit straightforwardly by Martin Aronstein and provides a creamy context for Zoe DuFour's fanciful '30s costumes.

Actors and director are greatly to be thanked for the enjoyment of this "Tenor" but let's remember that first came the word. Ludwig has written an uncommonly clever latter-day pseudo-Feydeau farce, constituting one of those rare occasions when the theater is indebted to a lawyer for its success.

It's an ironic spin that would not have been wasted on that other farceur, Moliere.

* "Lend Me a Tenor," Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 5 and 9 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Feb. 23. $31.50; (818) 356-PLAY, (213) 480-3232. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

'Lend Me a Tenor'

Laura Hughes: Maggie Saunders

Robert Picardo: Max

Paul Dooley: Henry Saunders

Anne de Salvo: Maria Merelli

Gary Beach: Tito Merelli

Jean de Baer: Diana

Peggy Pope: Julia Leverett

Ron Fassler: Bellhop

A Pasadena Playhouse production in association with Theatre Corp. of America. Director David Saint. Playwright Ken Ludwig. Set Tony Walton. Lights Martin Aronstein. Costumes Zoe DuFour. Production stage manager Kathleen Horton. Stage manager David S. ranklin.

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