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THEATER REVIEW / 'LEND ME A TENOR' : Night at the Opera : Despite initial faltering, the comedy makes for an agreeable enough outing at the Solvang Festival Theatre.

August 27, 1992|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

From the moment temperamental Italian opera singer Tito Merelli haughtily announces that he always tours with two of his own costumes for "Otello," we can be sure that before the evening of his guest appearance in 1934 Cleveland is over, there will be a pair of Otellos scrambling around the stage in a dissonant frenzy of mistaken identities.

And we can be just as certain that the other Otello will be Max, the opera company's shy, spineless assistant manager who harbors secret dreams of operatic stardom.

In other words, there are few surprises in Ken Ludwig's comedy "Lend Me a Tenor," the summer's third offering from PCPA Theaterfest. Despite some initial faltering, it's an agreeable enough outing at the Solvang Festival Theatre, as long as you don't look for too much in the way of invention or depth.

The fun is really in the characters and their bewildered floundering when Merelli (Jonathan Gillard Daly) passes out from an overdose of tranquilizers, and Max (Gregg Coffin) steps into the role of the Moor. His boss (Charlie Bachmann) figures no one will spot the difference with Max in costume.

How fortunate that before the collapse, Merelli gives Max the mother of all singing lessons, in a hilarious sequence that transforms the tremulous nerd into a vocal powerhouse.

Superbly complementary as the dueling tenors, Daly bristles with self-important bombast while Coffin cringes at the slightest hint of disharmony. Both are notably adept with the requisite astonished reactions and double takes amply warranted by the plot convolutions. Even their singing is impressively operatic in the musical numbers.

Also worth appreciating is Kitty Balay's high-volume rendering of Merelli's tempestuous wife, who is convinced he's concealing a private harem of mistresses. Would you believe circumstances conspire to have her catch him in a hotel room with two ladies (Laurie McDermott and Tina P. Stafford) in suggestive states of undress?

I thought not.

Production values are impeccable, with both Everett Chase's scenic design and Marcia Rodriguez's costumes evoking a suitable backdrop of Depression-era escapist opulence.

But despite the able execution of the cast and technical crew, the show proves slow going through most of the first act. The deliberate pacing imposed by director Frederic Barbour would be better suited to sophisticated black comedy--much of Ludwig's purely functional dialogue suffers when we get the opportunity to do more than register content and move on. We start wondering about nagging details, like why Max seems so surprised to find Merelli unconscious when he himself drugged the tenor's wine.

The more frenetic second half relieves us of the burden of undue scrutiny, as we move into the bedroom for more adult--though hardly more mature--shenanigans. Ultimately, they put the farce on sure footing, but it takes longer than necessary to get there.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"Lend Me a Tenor," at the Solvang Festival Theatre, Wednesdays through Sundays through Aug. 29 at 8:30 p.m. Also performed at the Allan Hancock College Marian Theatre in Santa Maria at 8:30 p.m. on Sept. 5, 10-12 and 17-20; matinees at 2 p.m. on Sept. 5, 6, 8, 9, 12, 13, 15, 16, 19 and 20. Tickets are $15 and $18 Friday and Saturday evenings; $12 and $14 all other performances. For reservations or further information, call (800) 221-9469.

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