"Lend Me a Tenor," the comedy about a singer who goes missing, is largely missing one thing: singing. And even a hard-working cast can't disguise the strain involved in papering over the cracks.
“Lend Me a Tenor,” the comedy about a singer who goes missing, is largely missing one thing: singing. That’s clearly the thinking behind this tuner revamp of Ken Ludwig’s 1986 comedy. But although the musical makeover undoubtedly underlines the tenor element, the most the songs do is slow down the action — and in a farce, that’s fatal. There is some door-slamming fun in Ian Talbot’s strenuous production, but even a hard-working cast can’t disguise the strain involved in papering over the cracks.
First seen as a tuner in 2007 at the Utah Shakespeare Festival and reworked before and after a 2010 U.K. out-of-town tryout, the show lives largely backstage. Its onstage/offstage equation is reminiscent of “Kiss Me, Kate” but, sadly, this mostly lacks the latter’s wit.
Although some secondary characters have been stripped out of Ludwig’s original, the main action remains the same. Cleveland Grand Opera’s fortunes rest on international tenor sensation Tito Merelli (Michael Matus), who will perform a one-off appearance in Verdi’s “Otello.” He pitches up with his madly jealous wife Maria (Joanna Riding), but when he’s quasi-accidentally drugged to calm everything down, ineffectual Max (Damian Humbley) takes over in an attempt to impress his girlfriend Maggie (sweetly perky Cassidy Janson), who is obsessed with Tito.
All this is handled in cumbersome expository scenes that rarely lift into flowing comedy, as in the scene where the entire hotel staff tap-dance their excitement at the arrival of the Merellis. But the temperature only truly rises when Matus and Humbley gloriously let rip in a song in which Tito teaches Max to release his voice and — life-lesson alert — “Be Yourself.” That’s an hour into the show.
Initially, the second act improves once the farce gets going. But when everything stops for songs, there’s plenty of time to wonder why characterization is so thin.
Problematically, the pivotal character Max is too inconsistent and blandly played, and saddling him with more than one anodyne, sentimental number sandbags the action still further.
Other characterizations also fail to hit the mark. In the key role of Henry, who runs the opera, Matthew Kelly shouts almost every line and is so generalized that his dilemma carries no dramatic weight. Game though the performers are, Henry’s trio of elderly and expensive ex-wives have material so unfunny their presence induces bafflement.
Brad Carroll’s serviceable score with lyrics by Peter Sham has a pastiche jazz-era tone and Rossini-style spoofs played by a 14-piece band, but all that was done with more zest and drama in the Coleman/Comden/Green musical “On The Twentieth Century.”
The show’s highlights rest with the performers, the cream of whom make mountains out of molehills. Sophie-Louise Dann gives a delightfully vapid turn as diva Diana DiVane and lands every laugh in a song auditioning her Lucia di Lammermoor, Carmen, Violetta and beyond. And as the Merellis, buoyant Matus and snarling Riding pull off the considerable coup of having extravagantly oversized characters — and accents — yet hold their performances in delicious comedy check.
The show tries hard to be loved. But London already has self-consciously old-fashioned confectionary — including some vastly better written musical farce — in the current production of “Betty Blue Eyes.” Well-meaning as “Tenor” is, the almost sacreligious thought occurs: “Wouldn’t this all be better without the songs?”
Lend Me a Tenor
Maggie Saunders - Cassidy Janson
Tito Merelli - Michael Matus
Maria Merelli - Joanna Riding
Henry Saunders - Matthew Kelly
Diana DiVane - Sophie-Louise Dann