Set in Cleveland in the '30s -- in fact, set entirely in one hotel room adjacent to an opera house -- Tenor is the sort of comedy that went out of style for a few minutes when Joe Orton arrived on the scene in the '60s and sent up the genre with camp offerings like Loot and Entertaining Mr Sloane. But even a theatrical whirlwind as powerful as Orton, who turned farce on its head by inserting a hilarious counterculture tastelessness, couldn't extinguish the inherent pleasures of a well-made and inoffensive comedy about mistaken identity.
For those of you who attended only off-Broadway shows during the 1989 season, the story is about Tito Morelli (Oscar Cheda), a touring Italian opera star whose visit to Cleveland to sing Verdi's Otello is marked by a series of converging comic winds. At the onset the star is besieged by adoring female fans, which angers his long-suffering wife (Gia Bradley-Cheda, playing opposite her real-life husband). She walks out on him, and he attempts suicide by taking sleeping pills. His inert body is discovered by Max (M.J. Friel), a young would-be singer who works in the theater's office. At this point Saunders (John Carson Wall), the opera's ambitious producer, stunned by the possibility of not being able to present the singer, convinces Max to step in as the tenor, noting that the lead role's blackface makeup will allow the switch to succeed.
Max is quite nervous, but he's also ambitious. (Hours earlier he had received a lesson in performing from the great star himself.) Once in costume he's able to fool not only the producer's wife, but also his own girlfriend Maggie (Finnerty Steeves), Tito's costar Diana (Nell Gwynn), and the bellhop (Jeffery Taylor), who wants to rub elbows with the famous opera singer. The comedy turns on Max's discovery that Tito is not really dead. Rested after a long sleep, he's up and also running around in an Othello costume. When he arrives at the stage door, we learn, he's mistaken for a lunatic and chased off by the police. What ensues is one long do-si-do in which people show up in the hotel room nearly in time to uncover the hoax that Saunders and Max are pulling off. Meanwhile Tito is trying to figure out why people keep referring to events that he can't remember.
OK, it's not Twelfth Night, but it is pretty funny. For a show that comes very close to insulting both audience members -- what, Cleveland can't tell a world-class singer from an inexperienced voice? -- and theater people alike, Lend Me a Tenor is a good specimen of comedy. For one thing it propels itself on the rudimentary (but profound) notion that people really do pay attention to a story because they want to know what happens next. Ludwig has a deft touch with dialogue. When Max reports that Tito is dead, Saunders replies, "Well, I'm not surprised," noting that having a fight with your wife can really take the life out of you.
Nearly a decade after it seduced Broadway, Lend Me a Tenor is safe for the suburbs. (At least it's safe for Coral Springs, where most of the audience watching two white guys run around in blackface is itself white.) But don't worry, it isn't utterly tasteful. Like any mistaken identity story worth its weight in missed rendezvous, the story involves two women -- young Maggie and the more worldly Diana -- who end up having sex on stage with a man in an Othello costume. If director Hugh Murphy's touch were as light as Ludwig's, the fact that Maggie doesn't realize she is actually having sex with her beloved Max might play as poignant. Here, it's a passing comic thought.
For the most part, though, Murphy's direction is confident and crisp (and downright inspired in the case of the curtain-call pantomime, in which the cast reenacts the entire show in a fast-forward, two-minute silent version). Unlike a lot of Broadway shows that make their way down to South Florida, one thing Tenor has going for it is that even avid theatergoers haven't yet seen 200 productions of it. The Stage Door production is fresh, too, in every sense of the word. That includes John Fionte's handsome set design and Costume World's snazzy outfits.
As Saunders, the salt of the play, John Carson Wall gets many of the best lines. Faced with the prospect of putting a dead tenor on stage, he groans, "We'll add a few words about how [Othello] was wounded in the battle of Cyprus, and we'll carry him around the stage." Wall gives a solid and likable performance, but I wish he'd steal more of the show. His role, after all, is the one that earned Philip Bosco a Tony. Wall is nearly upstaged by Barbara Bradshaw as his wife, Julia, who also gets great dialogue and uses it to better effect. "Wonderful isn't the word, my dear," she oozes in reply to Maggie's assessment of the musical performance by the tenor she thinks is Tito. "He was 'box office.'"
Both Oscar Cheda and Gia Bradley-Cheda, as the tenor and his wife, are charming, if not particularly memorable. As the bellhop who is ready to hop into bed with the tenor, Jeffery Taylor is charming, too. The performer with the most box-office appeal in this production is Nell Gwynn, who resembles an Amazonian version of Jean Harlow and is nearly as funny. M.J. Friel is appealing, but he's overshadowed by Finnerty Steeves' Maggie, who accomplishes the seemingly odd task of being assertive and virginal at the same time. Lend this cast a round of applause.
Lend Me a Tenor.
Written by Ken Ludwig. Directed by Hugh Murphy. Starring Barbara Bradshaw, Oscar Cheda, Gia Bradley-Cheda, M.J. Friel, Nell Gwynn, Finnerty Steeves, Jeffery Taylor, and John Carson Wall. Through October 11. Broward Stage Door Theatre, 8036 W. Sample Rd., Coral Springs, 954-344-7765.