Stage: "Lend Me A Tenor" at Lee St. Theatre
This weekend is your last chance to catch a rollicking commedia of errors in Salisbury.
It’s 1934, and the tenor known to his adoring fans as ‘Il Stupendo’ is in town for a one-night-only performance of a one act opera about a murderous clown.
When world renowned Italian tenor Tito Merelli throws back a double dose of his prescribed phenobarbital, little does he know that his errand boy for the day, milquetoast tenor Max, has had the same idea. Both Merelli and Max hope to induce a nap before Merelli’s 6 o’clock call time at the Cleveland Grand Opera. Crushing more pills than he should into a wine glass, Max hopes to circumvent Merelli’s penchant for drink and keep him fresh for the show that evening.
It’s just one of the never ending string of mistakes and misunderstandings which make up Lend Me A Tenor, Ken Ludwig’s rollicking commedia of errors. Lee Street Theatre delivers again with the beloved 1986 play, keeping up a relentless comedic pace as everyone from the bellhop to the Opera Guild chairwoman vies for Merelli’s attention.
Lend Me A Tenor
at Lee St. Theatre
329 N Lee St, Salisbury, NC 28144
Fri, Apr 14th, 2023 at 7:30 pm
Sat, Apr 15th, 2023 at 7:30 pm
The Cleveland Grand Opera’s general manager, Henry Saunders, has only one purpose – get Merelli to the opera house before he gets distracted by wine, women, or an untimely death. His assistant Max, who happens to be romantically entwined with Saunders’s daughter Maggie, is charged with seeing this task through.
Maggie loves Max, but she is looking for one last fling and doesn’t mind displaying her infatuation for the famous guest vocalist. Maggie has competition in Diana, the ambitious soprano looking for a way to Carnegie Hall; Julia, the grand dame of the Cleveland Opera Guild; an amorous bellhop; and Merelli’s own wife Maria, whose fury is locked and loaded whether there is cause for alarm or not.
Max, the opera company’s “factotum, gofer, and all-purpose dogsbody” is at the center of the action as the full cast swirls in and out of Merelli’s hotel room.
It feels as though director Melissa Tarduno and the folks at Lee Street pulled some of these entertaining character designs from a Tex Avery cartoon. Jacob Brayton as Merelli, short in stature, sports a bushy, black handlebar mustache keeping his face in a constant smile. Joey Moray as Max, much taller than the Italian tenor, pairs his sincerity with an endearing buffoonery. Beth Bentley plays a passionate and domineering Maria for nearly every moment she graces the stage. Matt Ensley as Saunders is a special treat, channeling Nathan Lane with an exasperated authority and dollar signs in his eyes. Amy Hope as soprano Diana and Alice Rich as guild chair Julia both bring a signature va-voom to the stage. Absolutely everyone plays for laughs, and plays well.
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Lend Me A Tenor, performed first nearly forty years ago, originally had Verdi’s Otello at the heart of its action. Essential to the plot, full face makeup is the source of one mistaken identity lazzo after another in the second half. Perhaps you have connected the dots, but performances of Lend Me A Tenor included blackface as a central costuming element until a rewrite in 2019.
Too late, but not too little, playwright Ken Ludwig changed the opera from Otello to Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo. Theatergoers at this production, and any other moving forward, will see the confusion played out with a classic pierrot’s clown makeup. How any of the other characters cannot see the significant height differential between the two clowns is up to us to guess, but this only adds to the fun.
The lighthearted romp is fueled by one wrong assumption or mislaid card after another, and to spoil the heart of it would be a crime. For all the fantastic go-for-broke performances on this stage, the best moments have Joey Moray at the center. Leaning on familiar vaudeville gaffes and gags, Moray’s constantly shifting motivations are clearly defined as he seeks approval, finds confidence, makes executive decisions, fails, gets embarrassed, and gets over it only to walk into the same trap once more.
The dynamic between Moray and Brayton’s Merelli, who in a somewhat unexpected twist takes a shine to Max’s own aspirations as a tenor, is the unexpected heart of the show. For all the hullabaloo the Cleveland opera scene drums up around Merelli’s international celebrity, Brayton turns in a sweet, happy character who just loves to enjoy life and sing.
If you haven’t made it to Salisbury yet, it’s worth the drive for a bite to eat and a great show. In case you’re looking for recommendations for the first part, pizza at the Salty Caper is delicious and right down Lee Street. For the second, you’re in luck: Lend Me A Tenor is up for one more weekend at the Theatre.
Friday, April 14, 7:30 PM
Saturday, April 15, 7:30 PM