Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Timing is all: “Lend Me a Tenor” at Covina Center

The art of farce is, to a great extent, about precision. Timing is everything, as doors and windows begin to slam. A good farce starts calmly, in a way which seems ordered and logical, and then disintegrates. The very collapse enhances the comedy, as the audience looks at people who once seemed reasonable beginning to cope with a world become increasingly outrageous.

One of the truly well-crafted farces of recent decades is Ken Ludwig’s “Lend Me a Tenor.” Done right, it has all the elements above: characters of supposed intelligence, increasing pandemonium, and the obligatory flapping of doors. It can be wildly funny. It’s reasonably funny – at least the second half is – even if everything isn’t really as precise as needed. This I learned watching the production at Covina Center for the Performing Arts. There is still much to laugh at and with, but not as much as could be.

The tale starts innocuously enough. A midwestern opera company has managed to snag a famous tenor for a benefit performance of “Othello.” The tenor arrives later than expected. The artistic director of the company, supposing he will not arrive at all, has done what he can to mask the lack of a headliner. Pretty soon, the wave of mistaken identities, women mad for a famous Italian, and nervous imposters begins.

The problem at CCPA, is that it begins to be crazy from the very start. Mark E. Rainey, as the opera’s artistic director, is nearly apoplectic even before the craziness really begins. As his daughter – a girl with a mad crush on the Italian – Emily Lappi also starts at a heightened level which doesn’t give her much room for expansion. As the mild-mannered assistant who ends up a part of coping with the Italian’s absence, Sean Larson is made such a total geek, high-waters and all, that he too seems to have already taken his character somewhat over the top before the script calls for it.

Which is not to say they lack as performers. Once the silliness is in full swing, they rise to the occasion. It’s just that, by being so outrageous so early, they actually slow up the exposition which lets the rest of the comedy happen, making the start of the thing drag. It’s almost like director Joshua Prisk doesn’t trust the material, and has to juice it up at the start. This is unwise.

Still, by the end everyone watching will be laughing up a storm. Rainey’s outrage, when it is supposed to happen, is classic. Lappi’s mad passion for the opera singer proves quite hysterical at points. Larson, as the person trying to be reasonable in the midst of a distinctly crazy situation, finds that balance well. And they are joined by a cast equally up to the wild frenzy of the physical comedy of the show’s second half.

Patty Rangel proves delightful, and wonderfully elegant as the woman in charge of the institution putting on the gala. Micah Papalia finds all the comedy in the hapless Italian. Viera Lee makes absolutely terrific work of the Italian’s passionately jealous wife. Christina Carabajal slinks convincingly as the worldly-wise soprano. Stephen Ferrand – though he, again, begins his assault a bit early – offers significant clowning as the opera fan bellhop.

Indeed, by the end the only thing missing – and it is not trivial – is the fact that neither Papalia nor Larson, both of whom play men who are supposed to be able to hold down a leading role in a Verdi opera, can sing. Well, that and the fact that the set (also attributed to Prisk) proves very fragile, with wobbling walls and doors which rip off hinges. Farces take a lot out of a set, so that is rough to see on opening night.

Still, you will laugh at this show. You can’t help it. Good farce is almost automatically funny, particularly if the actors can get the timing on the craziest bits down cold, which these people do. Still, just a bit more subtlety and sturdiness would make it really sing.

What: “Lend Me a Tenor” When: Through April 28, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: Covina Center for the Performing Arts, 104 N. Citrus Ave. in Covina How Much: $23 – $33 Info: (626) 331-8133 or http://www.covinacenter.com

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