Though a bit dated, Ocean State Theatre Company’s current offering, Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me A Tenor, is a nod toward good old-fashioned comedy. It is loud, crass and filled with mistaken identities and is, in a word, hilarious!
Then there are all the slamming doors. The room to room chases and near misses bring one back to Saturday mornings with “The Three Stooges.” And, much like the loveable lunkheads Moe, Larry and Curly, the cast of OSTC’s Tenor had the audience in stitches on opening night.
In an effort to get themselves on the “operatic map,” The Cleveland Grand Opera Company hires world famous tenor Tito Merelli to perform in their season opening production of Othello. Yet, he shows up late, sick and very agitated. Solution? Slip him a couple tranquilizers, make him take a nap and then get him to the theater. But, after an accidental double dose, he falls into a deep sleep and is left for dead! Pure mayhem ensues when amateur singer and company “gopher” Max agrees to don the Othello costume.
All the action occurs in Merelli’s hotel room. And, once again, OSTC’s set designers answer the call. The two-room suite projects a luxury befitting a worldwide star. The sitting room features a stiff but expensive-looking white sofa. End tables, lamps and dimly lit wall sconces complete the room. In the next room, a vanity sits opposite a bed covered by a lush red comforter, which pops against the orange/brownish walls. Six doors, which see a lot of action, surround the suite.
The Shakespeare/Othello connection certainly arouses some curiosity as both Othello and Tenor explore jealousy, albeit one ends tragically, the other comically. In Tenor, Othello becomes a sort of play-within-a-play with multiple coupling possibilities presented throughout, but all ends well. Shakespeare was also the master of spinning tales of mistaken identities, much of which propels the plot forward in Ludwig’s play.
Despite its title, there is virtually no singing expect for an extremely charming duet, “Dio, che nell’alma infondere” from Verdi’s Don Carlos, between Max (Nick Gaswirth) and Merelli (Bruce Sabath). Both men display excellent chops and it is a bit disappointing they don’t get to sing more (though Max does perform a short solo for his girlfriend Maggie).
Under RI native Kevin Pariseau’s direction, the play moves along at a good clip. Though some of the humor in Act I does seem forced, it sets the scene for Act II where the laughs are nonstop. The funniest moment occurs when the two Othellos mirror each other’s movements on opposite sides of a wall, a challenging logistical feat with both Gaswirth and Sabbath succeeding admirably; the audience responds with enthusiastic applause. This ploy is later repeated when both Othellos bed a couple of star-struck Merelli fans.
The stereotypical skewering of Italians provides most of the laughs. When Merelli doesn’t arrive on time, company director Saunders (Alexander Cook) angrily shouts, “He is in a gutter from cheap Chianti.” When an entranced Maggie recalls meeting Merelli for the first time, “He kissed my hands,” a jealous Max responds, “He’s Italian, they kiss everything!”
With remarkably genuine Italian accents, the constant arguing and “shudda upa yourself” between Merelli and his wife Maria (Gerianne Genga) is also priceless. Their misuse and mispronunciation of words lead to some juicy double entendres and hilarious exchanges: “He wants bosoms,” declares Maria, with Max actually thinking that Merelli wants breasts. She continues, bending over and shaking her upper body, “Every time the waitress leans over asking if he wants more!”
Gaswirth and Sabath’s performances are clearly the highlights. Individually, they dominate the stage. When they are on together, it is thrilling free-for-all.
As Max, Gaswirth easily transitions from nervous company gopher to suave, confident Italian tenor oozing sensuality, an unassuming ease makes this transformation completely believable.
Sabath portrays the larger-than-life Tito Merellli with an indifferent and amiable charm. One easily forgives his transgressions and laughs along with him as he laughs at himself. Sabath’s easy-going nature and well-timed clumsiness make an otherwise shady character extremely likeable.
Genga’s Maria is also great fun to watch, whether butchering the English language or going toe-to-toe with Tito, she manages to steal some of the spotlight.
As the sultry diva Diana, Rochelle Weinrauch has some funny moments slithering in and out of her ball gown. Elizabeth Boyke, as the reserved but equally opportunistic Maggie, nicely holds her own while having her “fling” and keeping her man. Meanwhile, Alexander Cook, opera company director Saunders, draws many of the early laughs with a penchant for swearing and making off-the-cuff announcements foretelling impending doom.
Local theater veteran Kevin Broccoli also has some funny moments as the camera toting star-struck bellhop.
OSTC’s production of Lend Me A Tenor, runs through April 19. For tickets or more information, visit oceanstatetheatre.org.