Stage Struck Review

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Lighthearted Farce Done Right: “Lend Me a Tenor” in La Mirada

J. Paul Boehmer, Catherine LeFrere, Davis Gaines and John Shartzer star in the LA MIRADA THEATRE FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS/McCOY RIGBY ENTERTAINMENT production of "LEND ME A TENOR." [photo: Michael Lamont]

J. Paul Boehmer, Catherine LeFrere, Davis Gaines and John Shartzer star in the LA MIRADA THEATRE FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS/McCOY RIGBY ENTERTAINMENT production of “LEND ME A TENOR.” [photo: Michael Lamont]

In the world of well-crafted farces, Ken Ludwig’s “Lend Me a Tenor” has proven itself dependably clever in a variety of different settings. That is, when the cast is up to the rather specific demands of a tale about a regional opera company. Filled with classic slamming doors and mistaken identities, its sheer ridiculousness combined with its endearing characters makes it a deceptively easy hit.

Now playing at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, courtesy of the McCoy Rigby Series there, a new production of this silly piece has all the required elements to make it a sure-fire hit, and the results don’t disappoint. Those who must sing really can. Those who must be over-the-top do so with delightful abandon. The look, and the timing, all enhance the whole.

In short, this “Tenor” sings like an angel.

The tale, as much as there is one, centers upon a two-room hotel suite in Cleveland in 1934. The Cleveland Opera has invited the great Italian tenor, Tito Merelli, to sing “Otello” in a one-night gala performance. When he doesn’t arrive on the expected train, panic ensues among those hovering around that room waiting for him. When he finally does show up, a series of missteps, mistakes, and eventually mistaken identities create complete pandemonium.

Director Art Manke has collected a remarkably able ensemble cast to make all of this work, and his combination of choreographed movement and pacing makes the entire thing come together just as it should.

Central to the piece is John Shartzer’s Max, the harried assistant to the company’s general manager upon whom all the pressure regarding Tito’s appearance lands. Shartzer creates in Max a wiry, anxious, and – in the end – surprisingly talented man, even in the midst of panic. As his charge, Davis Gaines makes Tito stereotypically emotional, yet with an underlying kindness which humanizes the stereotype. Both sing well, which cements a major element of the storyline.

J. Paul Boehmer gives the company’s general manager the appropriately officious combination of command and fatalism. Kelley Dorney, as Max’s starstruck fiancé, radiates an innocent sense of daring. Colette Kilroy gives the older chairman of the Opera Guild an endearing enthusiasm, while Leslie Stevens creates the aura of a budding diva as the soprano anxious to use her connection with Tito to further her career.

In somewhat smaller but no less polished performances, Catherine LeFrere has a field day with Tito’s wildly dramatic, fed-up wife, while Jeff Skowron proves consistently funny as an opera-obsessed bellhop who co-opts the role of room service waiter to snag Tito’s autograph.

The set, by Tom Buderwitz, is filled with a sense of period luxury. David Kay Mickelsen has created period costumes which evoke the era, and meet the rather circumspect needs of the McCoy Rigby audience for decorum in the play’s more sensual moments. Katie McCoy’s wigs are perfect for both time and character. In short, the visuals set the scene and allow certain outmoded elements necessary for the plot to appear historically appropriate.

This “Lend Me a Tenor” will allow for genuine and lighthearted laughter, and who couldn’t use a bit of silliness in this fractious time? Go and enjoy, and leave happily unencumbered by anything deeper than the requisite happy ending.

What: “Lend Me a Tenor” When: through November 13, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20 – $70 Info: (562) 944-9801, (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

Coward’s “A Song at Twilight” – a great playwright looks in the mirror

Sharon Lawrence and Bruce Davison spar in "A Song at Twilight" at the Pasadena Playhouse [photo: Michael Lamont]

Sharon Lawrence and Bruce Davison spar in “A Song at Twilight” at the Pasadena Playhouse [photo: Michael Lamont]

One of the patterns in the lives of great modern comic playwrights comes as they move into the second half of life. At that point their work tends to balance the usual humor with a more serious undertone. Perhaps they reach for something new. More likely, a greater life experience with its backward looks and painful mistakes balances out their humorous view of the world with something nearer the heart.

Most certainly this happened to the great Noel Coward – a man of wit, bite and fame. He was also troubled along with many fellow men of letters by the cost of that fame, as their lives were lived in the spotlight in a Britain where homosexuality in men, including themselves, was punishable by imprisonment. Just a year before this Neanderthal law was repealed, he offered up a new, and now comparatively obscure play “A Song at Twilight,” about the devil’s compromise men such as himself were forced into. It proves stunning in its honesty, as well as carrying with it the traditional wry tension between the sexes.

Now at the Pasadena Playhouse, “A Song at Twilight” highlights the struggles of being a gay man from the inside, written by someone all too familiar with the risks connected in his own lifetime to simply being who he was.

Sir Hugo Latymer, a celebrated novelist of international fame, is relaxing in a suite with a beautiful view of the Alps, being waited upon by his favorite hotel employee, the charming and efficient Felix, as his wife Hilde sorts out his affairs. Suddenly he encounters – once again – the woman with whom he once had an affair, who arrives with substantive proof that his life in public is not his private truth. The results mix humor, fondness, terror and a gradual understanding of the damage a hidden life has caused not only Latymer but all those with whom he is closely connected.

Bruce Davison gives Latymer the sharp wit and casual elegance as he stands in for Coward’s own view of life. His timing is quick, and his pathos understated. It’s a beautifully and correctly underplayed part. As his German wife, Roxanne Hart brings an innate sadness to the brusk, efficient woman. Indeed, it underscores the price paid by anyone fond of the person whose lie becomes a life’s work.

Sharon Lawrence and Roxanne Hart as the two sides of care for a famed yet innately frightened man

Sharon Lawrence and Roxanne Hart as the two sides of care for a famed yet innately frightened man

Sharon Lawrence’s sharp-edged, wise yet often brutal wit as the dreaded former lover Carlotta is just the right foil for Davison, and interestingly for Hart as well. The contrasts between characters, and yet their interconnectedness at certain moments, is a sign of both the playwright’s and the actors’ art. Zach Bandler makes the affable Felix a more fully drawn character than many a hotel employee in such plays, radiating both efficient professionalism and an underlying sympathy.

Yet, as is often the case with Coward’s work, in the end what one remembers is the feel and theme of the piece. This is enhanced by Art Manke’s beautifully structured direction, which keeps what could easily become a kind of panel discussion on its feet and human. Tom Buderwitz’s set design is, in itself, a character – filled with grandeur and openness even as its central occupant finds himself incapable of at least the second and to some extent the first.

In short, the play and this production become deeply moving even as they often prove humorous. Consider how many people in that dark century of law had to live a lie in order to avoid being jailed for being themselves. Would this were a tale only told in the past tense, but as recent actions in central Africa and Russia attest, people in some parts of the world still live under that same Damoclesian sword.

And how fascinating that in the same week as this lovely production opened, Coward’s own home country allowed same-sex couples to marry. Coward would have been pleased.

What: “A Song at Twilight” When: Through April 13, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $44 – $64 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

The Art of Comedy: The sheer delight of “Fallen Angels” at the Pasadena Playhouse

Pamela J. Gray and Katie MacNichol create the delight in "Fallen Angels" at the Pasadena Playhouse

Pamela J. Gray and Katie MacNichol create the delight in “Fallen Angels” at the Pasadena Playhouse

We all need a good laugh. Indeed, who among us does not appreciate performers with expert comic timing. Anyone who has ever told a joke knows how much even good material can suffer if the timing is off, and how much even vapid material can be enhanced by someone who, in common parlance, tells a joke well.

And when you are dealing with world-class wit – a script by Noel Coward – then the addition of beautifully executed performances can become a wondrous thing. As example, please see “Fallen Angels,” now at the Pasadena Playhouse. At its least it is a charming send-up of stuffy society marriages. At its best it contains some of the funniest moments of physical comedy I’ve seen onstage in some time.

It is the 1920s. Julia Sterroll and her longtime best friend Jane Banbury have successful, if not blissful marriages to substantial, if stolid men. When both husbands leave on a golf trip, the two women would be fine doing things together, until they each receive word that the Frenchman each in turn had a premarital affair with is about to arrive in London. Anticipation and dread fill the air, as each woman deals with long-squelched passions, mixed as they are with their mutual jealousies and their foundational friendship.

As the two women wait for their old love’s arrival they almost unintentionally drift into a champagne-based alcoholic haze. Never has drunkeness been so funny, if only because both characters are essential ladies in spite of all. Pamela J. Gray and Katie MacNichol, as Julia and Jane respectively, have that rare ability for a physical comedy just at the edge of being over-the-top: hysterical but not ridiculous.

Added to this, Mary-Pat Green proves a delight playing their overly qualified but somewhat detached maid, an observer marking the silliness and adding to the household upheavals. Loren Lester and Mike Ryan offer up the staunchly practical, comparatively puritan husbands who are forced by the end to see their wives in somewhat different light. Elijah Alexander is briefly but flamboyantly the awaited French lover.

Still, it is Gray and MacNichol who rule this piece. Under the deft hand of director Art Manke, who lets them fill the room always with just enough held back, their actions leave the audience helpless with laughter even as the crisp Coward dialogue propels them forward.

Tom Buderwitz has created a flashy Victorian flat, with lovely period detail, for this romp to live in. David K. Mickelsen’s costuming – particularly MacNichol’s very period evening dress – not only add to the comedy but provide some rather humorous statements about that period’s fashions as well.

“Fallen Angels” is not profound, nor was it intended to be. It is, rather, a chance to see great, silly comedy done with remarkable expertise. And what a treat that can be: something very funny done very well by the very expert. Get tickets before they disappear, as word of this delight is certain to spread quickly.

What: “Fallen Angels” When: Through February 24, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $32 – $62, with premium seating available for $100 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.Pasadena Playhouse.org

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