Bay City Players is certainly swinging for the fences this season. As a follow up to February’s August: Osage County, a dramatic powerhouse of a play that revolves around addiction and violence, audiences are being offered a palette cleanser from the other end of the comic spectrum: a deliciously madcap performance as funny and light as the other was dark.
For those of you who might not be familiar with Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me a Tenor, it is generally considered one of the finest farces in the American canon. Over the past thirty years it has become a mainstay for regional and community theatres. The play unfolds on the opening night of Othello at the Cleveland Grand Opera, and the company’s hardworking assistant, Max, is charged with seeing to the needs of their star, world famous tenor Tito Morelli. When Tito accidentally overdoses on sleeping pills, Max, an aspiring singer himself, volunteers to stand in and sing the title role, unrecognizable under the costume of the famous Moor of Venice. A key part of the play’s plot, and one that has become increasingly problematic as the show ages, is that the role of Othello in Verdi’s opera has commonly been played by white singers in blackface, and Max is able to pass himself off as Tito by darkening his skin and donning a fake afro. In this production, however, director Jessica MacFarland has wisely cut the blackface elements, relying on a fake beard and a willing audience to do the heavy lifting. Absolutely nothing is lost with the choice, and I found myself able to enjoy the play more fully without the awkward material.
Ms. MacFarland demonstrates a firm hand at the wheel and a solid grasp of the play, which comes with its fair share of audience expectations and tricky staging. The delicate timing for the sequence when the bellhop unknowingly puts luggage into a closet that is already occupied is alone worth the price of admission. She isn’t shy about leaning hard into the physical comedy as well, asking her actors to leap over couches, atop beds and through doors that slam frequently and emphatically. And, boy, were those actors game for the fun. At its best, farce demands a superhuman effort from its actors, akin to a 2-hour long, fast-paced dance number, and the cast that Ms. MacFarland has assembled features strong comic actors giving everything they have. Tony Lynch is pitch-perfect as the cranky manager of the opera company, Saunders. Dave Ryan, as Tito Morelli, is playing the role he was born to play with gusto. Cheri Garrett, whom I haven’t seen before, gave perhaps the cleanest performance of the evening as Tito’s wife, Maria, with excellent comic timing and a character that walked the fine line between believable and cartoonish. Rounding out the cast is Thad VanTifflin, an energetic ray of sunshine as the Bellhop; Cathy Gibboney as the ridiculously fabulous board chair, Julia; Gina Kearly channeling Jessica Rabbit as the ambitious soprano, Diana; Hailey Alexandra Samyn as Max’s doe-eyed fiancée, Maggie; and Keven Washburn as the poor, frazzled Max. Keven’s lovely tenor combined with Dave Ryan’s to provide the best sung production of this play I’ve seen in years. Their excerpt from Don Carlo was a surprising treat for a play that usually sacrifices singers who can pass as professional opera stars in favor of good comic actors.
The technical side of the production was more of a mixed bag. Costumes, designed by Joy Butler, were sharp and eye-catching. The scenic design, which was not credited, was serviceable for the most part, but did present some sightline problems for me sitting far right in the house. Lighting by David Newsham and sound by Madeline Brown were solid and unobtrusive. Props and set dressing lagged behind the rest of the technical elements, though. A side table, featured prominently down center for the entire play, had a significantly damaged veneer that stood in marked contrast to the intended opulence of the hotel suite, and Tito’s bottle of “Chianti,” with its famous shape, inexplicably contained white wine.
One final quibble I had was with the decision to cut the famous curtain call. If Lend Me a Tenor is known for anything, it’s for a zany, fast-forward recap of the entire play. It’s as much a part of the expectation for this play as the play itself, and I’m curious as to why the decision was made to default to a traditional curtain call.
Make no mistake, though, this is an excellent, well-acted production of Lend Me a Tenor that offers a full evening of belly laughs and can claim bragging rights to one of the strongest casts that could be assembled in our region for this play.
Lend Me a Tenor plays through March 31st at Bay City Players at 1214 Columbus Ave in Bay City. For tickets, visit baycityplayers.org or call the box office at 989.893.5555.