Lend Me a Tenor: La prima donna è mobile

Lend Me a Tenor at RI Stage Ensemble. L-R: Steve Small, Mary Case (looking "like the Chrysler Building"), and Robert Grady.

Lend Me a Tenor at RI Stage Ensemble. L-R: Steve Small, Mary Case (looking “like the Chrysler Building”), and Robert Grady.

Nominated for nine Tony Awards and winning two, Lend Me a Tenor by playwright Ken Ludwig is an unambitious and ridiculous farce that depends upon numerous perfect coincidences and character stereotypes. The central plot element is a case of mistaken identity that depends upon both parties to the confusion wearing blackface makeup to perform the title character of the Moor in Verdi’s opera Otello.

While blackface makeup – euphemistically called “darkening up” in opera – may seem a relic of a long ago era, it is a tradition that has been rethought only suprisingly recently. The Metropolitan Opera in New York City made news by dropping blackface for Otello only in 2015 after using it in 2013. (The decision received so much attention that theater critic Ben Brantley and classical music critic Anthony Tommasini published a joint exchange of opinions in The New York Times.) Theatrical performances of Shakespeare’s Othello, the basis for the Verdi opera, have not used blackface makeup for decades, and the last vestiges of it were seen on the stage in the late 1980s.

As a result, the 1986 premiere of Lend Me a Tenor occurred almost exactly at the start of a 30-year transition that would see blackface makeup banished first from the Shakespeare play and then from the Verdi opera. The choice to put on this play in 2017 is therefore puzzling, engendering much the same queasy feeling as eating food that is past its expiration date but not yet actually rotting. Although the play is set in 1934, its employment of blackface makeup makes it a difficult sell to current audiences, much more difficult than it was 30 years ago.

In response to an inquiry about the use of blackface makeup, director Elizabeth Labrecque said via e-mail to Motif, “After many discussions with members of the community, as well as research into the historical reasoning behind the use of blackface in this show, we have decided that the actors’ faces will be darkened slightly for the effect of obscuring their identities. The actors have been briefed on the sensitivity of the issue, especially in the times we are living in today.”

While the play is undeniably problematic, the Rhode Island Stage Ensemble does as good a job with it as can be imagined. All of the music heard throughout the play is actually sung live, even at the opening when the sound is supposedly coming out of a cathedral radio. Much of the credit for that is due to Robert Grady, an experienced opera singer with impressive vocal abilities: according to the program, he recently made his European debut with the Bulgarian State Opera. Here, he plays “Tito Morelli,” a famous Italian tenor being brought in to perform the role of Otello in Cleveland by local businessman and head of the opera company “Henry Saunders” (Steve Small) in co-operation with local grande dame “Julia Leverett” (Mary Case). Saunders’ daughter “Maggie” (Justine Durvin) has a nebbishy boyfriend “Max” (Michael Ferron) who is assigned to make sure Morelli gets to the show, sober, without being severely injured by his wife, “Maria” (Camille Terilli), who does not appreciate his flirting with other women. Indeed, the famous celebrity is the target of the affections of “Diana” (Kathleen Seagriff), who is intent on sleeping her way to the top of her profession, whatever that profession is. The entire play takes place in a hotel suite, and coming in at perfectly inopportune times is the bellhop (Tim Ferron). Due to an unexpected complication, Morelli is unable to perform and Saunders in order to avoid refunding all of the ticket money convinces Max, an opera fan who knows the role, to play Otello – a scam only possible because, as explained, the character is in blackface makeup.

RISE assembles an excellent cast for what can be seen as a funny, mindless farce. In addition to Grady who is outstanding in every way, the rest of the cast is a lot of fun to watch. M. Ferron as Max is very convincing as the nearly neurotic sycophant to his future father-in-law, Small as the domineering Saunders. Seagriff as Diana and Durvin as Maggie well play the dichotomy that might, at the risk of a low-brow cultural allusion, reflect the eternal quandary of Ginger or Mary Ann.

Lend Me a Tenor is growing close to unperformable given its dated core premise, but if you can get past that RISE puts on a very respectable version of it.

Lend Me a Tenor, directed by Elizabeth Labrecque, RI Stage Ensemble (RISE), 142 Clinton St, Woonsocket. Two acts with one intermission. Refreshments available. Free on-street parking. Web: http://www.ristage.org/lend-me-a-tenor.html Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/events/305051026563701/ Through April 9.

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