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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

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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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