Monday, December 30, 2013

'Lend Me a Tenor' dependably lends laughter to launch Beef & Boards' 2014 season

Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre's hallmark values of "louder, faster, funnier"  are well-suited to such an intricate farce, loaded with misunderstandings, door-slamming action and rapid-fire dialogue, as "Lend Me a Tenor."

Max and Saunders (Eddie Curry) come up with a ridiculous idea.
A comedy without songs (though there are crucial moments of operatic singing in this show) is unusual in a typical B&B schedule. That's evident once again as the season-launching Ken Ludwig play is the exception in a season of musicals.

Still, "Lend Me a Tenor" plays to the durable dinner theater's signature strengths. My only concern is that the satisfying opening-night performance played to those strengths almost too much. It was an evening of slam dunks when a few graceful, nothing-but-net three-pointers would have been welcome.

Darrin Murrell's direction was in the explicit B&B style from the opening scene, in which we see Maggie Saunders, daughter of the high-strung producer of Cleveland Grand Opera, gesturing enraptured to every broadcast phrase of La donna e mobile as sung by international divo Tito Morelli. No detail was likely to go un-underlined, we were beginning to learn. Maggie is in full swoon when her boyfriend Max, the likewise high-strung company factotum and wannabe opera singer, enters. He's frightfully worried about the whereabouts of the star tenor.

Morelli will prove elusive throughout the frenetic comedy, which spins out a web of complications — from his initial tardiness through a performance-threatening spell of queasiness on into his apparent demise and the stratagem Max and his boss come up with to deal with that disaster.

David Schmittou and Erin West are charming as the show's love interest. But here was an example of how Murrell's hellzapoppin style was too relentless.  The pangs of young love thwarted by the sort of scruples that were more common in the 1930s (the show's settings) than they are today were not fully explored.  Even a farce sets up real human dilemmas and engages our emotions as it ceaselessly delights us with one comic implausibility after another.

The coaching scene: Craig W. Underwood and David Schmittou.
This is a sexy show, and I applaud the vigor of this production's crossed signals of attraction, with a world-famous opera star as the magnetic pole. But something was missing: Max's eventual triumph (I'm not risking a spoiler here) should have had more than a touch of little-guy victory over daunting odds. When that's the case, the coaching session Morelli gives Max becomes all the more effective.

The admirable professionalism of this production extended from Schmittou and West throughout the cast. B&B artistic director Eddie Curry flourished explosively as Saunders, the hectoring yet desperate producer who sees everything he's worked so hard for at risk because of Morelli's indisposition (which includes the distraction of marital spats with his wife, Maria).

Maggie is stunned by a palm kiss from 'Tito.'
Gerri Weagraff as Julia, the impeccably dressed doyenne of the Opera Guild (she did indeed resemble the Chrysler Building), was intense and adoring. In her onstage role, costume designer Jill Kelly had the spitfire act down pat as Maria, and Erin Cohenour as Diana (the Cleveland production's Desdemona) applied the soprano's careerism relentlessly toward her co-star. Jeff Stockberger planted his outsize clown talents with both feet on the role of the obtrusive Bellhop, but he made the character more a general nuisance than a genuine opera fan making a nuisance of himself.

The set commendably aped what the 1930s took for high-end hotel-room design, but otherwise the time and place of the show seemed to be a taken-for-granted backdrop to the action. Part of the fun of "Lend Me a Tenor" is that the story highlights a provincial approach to elite culture at a time when opera stars were major celebrities and their visits to flyover country in the midst of the Great Depression were epochal local events. As funny as I found the Dec. 28 performance, I was struck by the overlay of a generic interpretation that, while expertly brought off, shortchanged some of the show's nuance and particularity.

Finally, a pet peeve: In the specialized world of opera, you have to say things right: the doomed heroine's name in "Otello" (with its costuming and makeup requirements for the title role that drive much of this play's action) is pronounced "Des-DAY-mona."  And the name of Don Jose, the male lead in "Carmen" (briefly alluded to), should be given its French pronunciation:  "Don Zhoh-Zay."

That said, any opera fan is bound to be stirred by the climax of Max's lesson with Tito, as the pair sing a few phrases from the Iago-Otello "oath" duet, presaging a bond based on self-confidence and fulfillment of dreams rather than the original's vengeance.  That moment was well-staged here; if only it had cast more of a glow over the glaring fitness of this production.

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