Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me A Tenor (Coast Capital Playhouse, until June 30) is a farce for people who don’t usually go for the idiom.
The 1989 comedy – which has been described as “one of the two classic farces by a living playwright” (the other being Michael Frayn’s equally celebrated Noises Off) – exerts an appeal for those who might shun a more down-market door-slammer.
The secret of Frayn’s piece is a clever multi-layered script that succeeds both as a celebration and a satire of the idiom.
Lend Me A Tenor works a different trick. By setting his farce in Cleveland in 1934, Ludwig has given the formula an art deco patina familiar to any fan of black and white movie comedies of the 1930s.
It is, in fact, the world of the Marx Brothers, as seen in A Night At The Opera and Room Service particularly, minus the iconoclastic, highly individual schtick of the brothers themselves.
But that doesn’t really matter. There’s something in the milieu itself – the desperate finagling of theatrical managers facing down the Great Depression, the snootiness of the society crowd, the smarminess of hotel bellboys, the vain glories of the ‘star,’ the slinkiness of calculating dames secreting themselves in dressing rooms and closets – that lends a classic aura to Lend Me A Tenor.
A huge success in revival on Broadway two seasons ago, and a staple of theatre groups across North America, Lend Me A Tenor arrived this week at the Coast Capital, in a White Rock Players Club production helmed by Ryan Mooney.
Mooney, artistic director of Vancouver’s acclaimed Fighting Chance Productions – which partnered notably with the Players Club in presenting last year’s summer musical, Nunsense – admits he’s never directed a farce before (although he did play the lead role of Pseudolous in the farcical musical A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum).
“It’s never really fitted into Fighting Chance’s mandate, but I love farce – it’s my favourite kind of humour,” he said.
“What drew me to Lend Me A Tenor is that it’s a very funny show.”
The Cleveland Opera’s attempt to stage a fundraising performance of Verdi’s Otello, starring famed tenor Tito ‘Il Stupendo’ Merelli (Michael Kalmuk), seems doomed to disaster when the star – a compulsive womanizer with a jealous and passionate wife, Maria (Launi Bowie) – receives an accidental double dose of tranquilizers before he’s due to go on stage.
Scheming company manager Saunders (Fred Partridge) and his nerdy assistant, Max (Aaron Reno), must cope with ambitious soprano Diana (Jackie Block), Saunders’s star-struck daughter Maggie (Nicole Smashnuk), silly society woman Julia (Susanne de Pencier) and a single-minded bellhop (Sean Donnelly) – while still somehow making sure the show goes on.
As a newcomer to Players Club regular season production, Mooney said he’s enjoying working with actors and technicians he’s never had an opportunity to encounter before.
“And it’s been really relaxing just to focus on directing – I direct and produce with Fighting Chance.”
Mooney is particularly enthusiastic about his cast, all of whom manage to project a `30s quality, he said.
“Fred Partridge is fantastic. I can’t get over how he takes direction better than anyone I’ve ever worked with. I think he thinks I’m kidding him, but when I give him a note, it’s great to see him working on it quietly and wonder what he’s going to come up with.”
He’s also welcomed the chance to work with de Pencier, a director in her own right, who also recently retired from a long career as a casting director in the movie and television industry.
“It’s nice to have someone whose professionality sets the tone,” he said.
Reno is also someone he’s never worked with before, he said.
“One of his teachers at Vancouver Film School had worked with me and, I guess, encouraged him to audition. He is one of the first people we read – he’s just great. It’s a tricky role because in the beginning he has to be sweet and tender and the audience has to root for him, and in the second act he has to be much more confident. Most young actors can do one or the other, but not both.”
Smashnuk, as Maggie, has also been a revelation, he said.
“She’s auditioned for me for Fighting Chance for two years, and every time she’s come in she’s been more confident,” he said, adding that while she played a chorus role in his recent production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, she has really come into her own with Maggie.
Kalmuk played the role of Merelli in a North Vancouver production of Lend Me A Tenor 13 years ago, Mooney said, which gave him a real edge in auditions.
“He’s not the typical matinee idol type, but I think of his Tito as being like when Robert Goulet was still touring in shows after the peak of his fame. He’s still a big star for Cleveland – I think that puts a very nice spin on it.
“He’s also very, very funny. He’s a bigger guy but he knows how to work the body – and he’s got a fantastic singing voice.”
Bowie’s Maria is, said Mooney, “a lovely, strong woman – between her and Merelli, you don’t know whether they’re going to kill each other or tear each other’s clothes off. She and Michael have that chemistry – they look like they could be married.”
Ironically, Block – an excellent singer – is cast in yet another Players Club show that doesn’t allow her to showcase that particular talent. Yet Mooney said it’s great to see the acting side of her ability as the vampish Diana, who sees Merelli as her ticket to New York.
“It’s always exciting to see someone starting to get it and develop a different skill set,” he said.
Donnelly – also noted as a singer – does get to sing quite a bit as the bellhop, but his role is also a gift comedic part that provides many memorable moments, Mooney said.
“It’s a smaller part for him, but he really can steal the show.”
For tickets, visit www.whiterockplayers.ca or call 604-536-7535.