“Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can; all of them make me laugh.”

― W. H. Auden

AUBURN — I had the distinct pleasure of attending opening night of the Lewiston-Auburn Community Little Theater production of noted playwright Ken Ludwig’s “Lend Me A Tenor” on Friday evening, Jan. 11. This clever farce is winner of three Tony Awards and was nominated for nine. It has been performed on and off Broadway for 30 years.

Imagine it is 1934, and the superstar of the day, Italian operatic tenor “Il Stupendo” Tito Merelli (Paul Menezes), is slated to perform with the Cleveland Opera Co. Blustery opera company general manager, Henry Saunders (Roger Philippon), is vexed about every detail of the impending arrival and performance of such an international celebrity. His starstruck daughter, Maggie (Caroline Carreras), waxes ecstatic at the opportunity to meet Signor Merelli. Meanwhile, her “sometimes” boyfriend, Max (Benjamin Monahan-Morang), gopher for Henry and secret tenor extraordinaire, is tasked with ensuring Merelli remains sober and curbed from pursuing his legendary libidinous and gluttonous ways which pose the only looming threat to success. Saunders needs everything to be perfect; this is the biggest event in the Cleveland Opera’s 10-year history and will surely cement Saunders’ legacy.

All seems in readiness. What can go wrong? Famous last words!

Merelli’s tardy arrival, with the unexpected addition of his volatile Italian wife Maria, deliciously played by Rebecca Cole, unleashes a string of non sequitur events that tests the resourcefulness and wiliness of Saunders and Max as they scheme to pull off what becomes seemingly impossible — to wit, replacing Merelli without anyone being the wiser.

What ensues is a delightful madcap romp of mistaken identities set entirely in Merelli’s downtown Cleveland hotel suite. The two-room set is eye-catching with five doors, all painted red (the color of the passion pervading the plot). A sitting room with a sofa and chairs at left and a bedroom at right, with a door leading from one room to the other via a center “stage wall” divide the two rooms. These become the focus of action which accelerates throughout the play, culminating in a brilliant breathtaking reprise at the play’s finale. 

Belly laughs top the menu as the audience is treated to a scrumptious, piping hot mid-winter crockpot of characters evocative of John Cleese’s “Fawlty Towers.” A generous helping of slamming doors, a dollop of the Marx brothers and a pinch of the Keystone Cops tantalizingly spice the recipe. Throughout, a zany bellhop (Jason Pelletier) metaphorically stirs the stew and tosses the side salad.

Flirty head of the opera guild, Julia (Jane Mitchell), bawdy Desdemona to Merelli’s “Otello,” Diana (Shannon LoCascio), and the naive, giddy Maggie vie for Merelli’s attention, affection or autograph. The Bellhop, too, seeks “un breve momento” in the presence of “Il Stupendo” with unabashed presumption and unprofessional tactics. This, while all are unaware of the deception perpetrated by Saunders and Max in their uproarious attempt to save the “Otello” performance from disaster.

Julia literally and figuratively glitters as she tempts Merelli to join her in some hanky-panky and sexy soprano co-star Diana raises the temperature in an alluring and comedic bedroom seduction — all while rampant mayhem reigns.

Under the crisp direction of Mitch Thomas, each cast member delivers talented, very athletic and fast paced action that left me gasping for air, only so I could recover from one laugh to the next. Often community theater productions bring one performance that “steals the show.” In this showcase of talent, however, each cast member has a scene or scenes in which to rivet one’s attention.

Certainly, Philippon delivers a first-rate performance, always irascible, acerbic even while seemingly at wit’s end. Newcomers to CLT Monahan-Morang and Carreras are genuine, convincing and endearing as the star-crossed young lovers in waiting. Max’s singing lesson with “Il Stupendo” rings with humor and choreographed intricacy. Throughout, Menezes shines as Tito Merelli in his portrayal of a superstar life-style oscillating from the perks to the pitfalls of such a career.

Costumes and set design convincingly convey the 1930s period of action. Lighting keeps attention focused on the frequently bifurcated plot development between the two rooms. Overture music and radio broadcasts add to the ambiance of the setting. I personally found myself chuckling at the many clever telephone conversations which humorously confirm that someone is at the other end of the line. These nuanced touches help create in simple but effective fashion the transformative, magical quality of live theater.

Italian accents abound, so listen carefully for witty, clever dialogue and one-liners you might miss. I whole-heartedly recommend treating oneself to a seat at this production, without reservation. I also recommend making reservations to attend, more than once if possible. So much is going on so rapidly and with such skill and talent that it is worthy of a second look.

Remaining performances are: Friday and Saturday, Jan. 18 and 19, at 7:30 p.m.; Thursday, Jan. 17, at 7:30 pm; and Sunday, Jan. 20 at 2 p.m. For more information, call CLT at 207-783-0958.


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