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Flight of Farce 

Or, the Tenor is terrific at North Coast Rep

You wind it up tight in the first act and in the second act it flies apart, only to somehow come together in the end. That’s the basic mechanism of farce, and it’s a lot harder to accomplish than it sounds.

The script is of paramount importance, and if you wanted a textbook example of modern farce construction, you might well choose Lend Me A Tenor by Ken Ludwig, now being staged at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka.

Even though it first hit Broadway in 1989, this play has the classic American feel of the 1930s-50s. I imagine Ludwig growing up in York, Pennsylvania watching screwball comedies and I Love Lucy reruns.

The premise is a comedy standard: high culture meets Main Street; stars meet the stardom-starved. The Cleveland Grand Opera Company lands the most famous Italian tenor, Tito Merelli, for its production of Verdi’s Otello. Merelli’s arrival is heralded by Saunders, the company’s ambitious general manager, and his starstruck daughter, Maggie, who pines for a romantic adventure before settling down with her father’s assistant (and aspiring singer), the stage-shy Max. Merelli arrives late, with a tempestuous wife and a bad stomach ache.

Added to the basic mix are a crazed fan bellhop and a couple of other amorous women with Tito in their sights. The action takes place in Merelli’s hotel suite, replete with the requisite array of doors leading to other rooms and closets. The complications to come are carefully prepared by the kind of seemingly random details that in a mystery would point you to the murderer: Saunders and Merelli are taking the same sleep-inducing medication, and Merelli lets it be known that he doesn’t need the Company’s Otello costume, he has his own. In fact, he carries two of them, just in case ...

These parts are brilliantly cast. As Saunders, Jerry Nusbaum brings an acid voice and nervous energy that oscillates between panic and despair. As Maggie, Kim Hodel radiates youth and innocence, but can turn naughty with the same Midwestern enthusiasm.

Michele Shoshani has just a few scenes as Julia, another older opera official, but she quickly establishes her character as a game if not especially hopeful seductress. Shelley Stewart also makes the most of her scenes as Diana, a sultry, sexual huntress of the careerist kind, who wants to parlay her Cleveland Desdemona opposite Merelli into international stardom. Sam Cord does a tour de force comic turn as the bellhop, and Lora Canzoneri brings energy and commitment to the role of Maria, Tito’s wife (so although the character as written is the least satisfying, being little more than some weary stereotypes about Italian women, her performance makes it credible enough for the story.)

But the evening depends on Evan Needham as Max and Anders Carlson as Merelli. Not only are these the key roles in the farce, but a lot depends on their relationship. That’s actually what makes this play more like some screen screwball comedies, by Preston Sturges or Frank Capra, say: There’s a core of human warmth inside the comic complications. In this case, it’s not only the romance between Max and Maggie, but the connection between two singers -- a star and a beginner. That also turns out to be a key to the farce itself.

Needham and Carlson work together beautifully, and they have the voices to carry off the brief but euphoric singing. Needham moves from anxiety to swagger as his character’s fortunes change, without losing his essential sincerity. Carlson has an even greater task in humanizing this clichéd figure of the Italian tenor, and by softening and deepening his performance gestures he creates a convincing and appealing character. NCRT often finds the sweetness and simple humanity in their productions, and that’s especially true for this delightful evening.

Renee Grinell’s direction is sparkling and wise: she speeds things along when appropriate (including a 90-second pantomime of the whole play just before the curtain call), but produces slower moments for character and emotion, and even some subtler comedy. Scenic designer Bill Cose and scenic artist Mark Fontaine seem to know their 1930s era Midwestern swank hotel décor, and the set is ingeniously workable for the inevitable hiding-in-the closet machinations. Marcia Hutson created the evocative costumes, and Calder Johnson designed the lighting.

The script is inevitably predictable at points, but there are some surprises and verbal wit as well as physical comedy. This is a fine production and a fun evening. Some tentative moments on opening night should disappear, as the cast gets comfortable with the pace and the complicated stage business. That’s important because as dependent on a sound mechanism as farce is, it becomes really funny when the actors lessen reliance on stock gestures and poses, and convey in the moment that their characters completely believe the situation, and are improvising their way out of it.

 

Lend Me A Tenor plays through August 9. In September NCRT will begin its 25th season, and one way it will celebrate this anniversary is with a new production of its very first show a quarter of a century ago: the musical comedy She Loves Me, by Joseph Stein, with songs by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (the same team that created Fiddler on the Roof.)

The season begins with the annual Shakespeare (The Merry Wives of Windsor) and features another musical -- The Producers, by Mel Brooks. Mid-season, artistic director Michael Thomas will direct an evening of two one act plays: Beware the Man Eating Chicken by Henry Meyerson, and The Goat by Edward Albee. Despite their titles, the subject linking them isn’t barnyard animals, but human feeling in what NCRT bills as “An Evening of Comedy and Oddity.”

Rounding out the season are Tina Howe’s perennial favorite regional theatre drama, Painting Churches, and a contemporary comedy by Norm Foster, The Love List.

This weekend, Ferndale Rep’s Senior Theatre Acting Repertory (a tortured way of spelling out STAR) brings Dave Silverbrand’s comedy Make Mine Metamucil to the Eureka Theatre for two performances: Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m.

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William Kowinski

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