Saturday, February 11, 2012

Wetumpka Depot: "Lend Me a Tenor"

Ken Ludwig: master farceur + Lend Me a Tenor: a hilarious farce + The Wetumpka Depot Players = a hit...a palpable hit!

Veteran actor/director Hazel Jones has put together another sure-fire success for the Depot Players. Along with an eight-member cast of actors (some are welcome newcomers to the Wetumpka stage), and a luxurious hotel-suite set sturdily designed to withstand the constant slamming of its six doors, she keeps the mood giddy for two hours of playing time.

It is 1934, and the 10th Anniversary of the Cleveland Grand Opera Company who have contracted [sight unseen] world renowned tenor Tito "Il Stupendo" Morelli to sing the lead role in their production of Giuseppe Verdi's Otello for their gala celebration. -- Morelli [William Harper] is reputed to be temperamental, a womanizer, and a drunk -- potentially a lethal combination.

Things are getting tense: rehearsal is underway and the guest artist is late arriving in town; star-struck Maggie [Erika Wilson] who met Morelli briefly in Italy tells Max [Phil Tankersley] that she wants an experience, a fling, before she marries him, and Max tells her that he could sing the role of Otello if Morelli doesn't show; Maggie's father, head man Saunders [Don Johnson], instructs timid Max to be Morelli's "keeper" and to keep him away from liquor and women...not an easy task when he arrives with his fiery wife Maria [Jan Hancock] in tow accusing him of infidelity.

Morelli suffers from indigestion and balks at rehearsing, bragging that he never misses a performance and always wears his own costume in the role. While Maggie hides in the bathroom, Tito helps Max become more confident in a very funny scene. Bullied by everyone to take his pills, Tito reluctantly agrees and takes a double dose; meanwhile, Max has spiked his wine with more pills. -- Maria has had enough of her husband's behavior, and walks out, leaving him a note. Ever the melodramatic actor, Tito threatens to kill himself when he reads Maria's letter, but Max puts him to bed.

Soon, Morelli's local co-star Diana [Laela Bunn] arrives to get Tito to "help her career", but Max puts her off, and then sees Maria's letter and the fast asleep tenor, thinking he is dead. Saunders and Max decide that Max will substitute in the role of Otello -- no one has ever seen "Il Stupendo", so a costume, wig, and blackface makeup would work. After all, Saunders' reputation is at stake, and Max needs a confidence builder. Even Julia [Charlotte Henderson], the head of the Opera Guild, and the hotel Bellhop [Matthew Walter] are eager to meet Morelli and will do almost anything to have some private time with him.

The trick is, of course, to keep everyone away from Morelli, and to hide his body while Max does a quick change into the Otello costume, wig, and blackface. -- Well, the disguise works, but that doesn't keep the women at bay, especially after Max's triumphant performance in the opera.

Meanwhile, Morelli has awakened and dressed for the there are two bewigged and costumed Otellos who can't appear on stage together for the play's joke to work, much to the audience's delight. And our "willing suspension of disbelief" is also tested since the two actors are so physically different...but that's part of the fun of it.

In true farcical tradition, with attempted seductions galore addressed to both Otellos, and lots of double-entendre dialogue [especially in a hilarious scene between Tito and Diana], and plenty of slamming doors done with split second timing and absolute committment by the acting company, the production of Lend Me a Tenor keeps the laughs coming.

Mr. Harper is a comic buffoon as Tito, and Ms. Hancock a harridan spitfire as Maria. Mr. Walter is a bundle of contradictory energy as the Bellhop, and Ms. Henderson's Julia is a flighty matron of the arts. Ms. Bunn comes into her own in the big seduction scene, while Mr. Hancock's over-the-top portrayal of Saunders makes us feel he is ready to burst at any second. Ms. Wilson shows both a comic sensibility and a truthfulness in her relationship with Max. But it is Mr. Tankersley who runs away with the role of Max: the underdog milquetoast who triumphs in the opera which we never see, but who also triumphs in gaining confidence and winning Maggie's hand.

Though the timing of some lines needs to be tightened to keep the pace moving at lightning speed, the Wetumpka Depot Players have created a happy romp with Lend Me a Tenor.