Lend Me A Tenor, White Rock Players Club’s current effort (until June 30, Coast Capital Playhouse), is a fast, funny, consistently entertaining period farce.
Director Ryan Mooney’s show is blessed with a fine cast who deliver delightfully nuanced performances, a superb set and set decoration, and spot-on technical work.
So why is it only a good show, when it could have been a great one? Principal culprit is a staggering inattention to costume and hair design – all the more noticeable because everything else in Mooney and Gordon Mantle’s production is so well-achieved.
Unaccountably, although playwright Ken Ludwig makes a specific point of setting the action in 1934, most of the actors – outside of Fred Partridge (who I suspect supplied his own wardrobe) – have their hard work undermined by clothes and hairstyles that show no evidence of research, or grasp of the era, whatsoever.
In a digital information age, in which an abundance of images and film footage from the time is readily available online, such carelessness is baffling.
This is not a matter of getting every last button right. Even professional shows fudge a few details and there is some latitude for designers’ personal interpretation. But competent costuming and hairstyling – in a period production – is non-negotiable. It is part of a producer’s compact with the audience, a basic assurance that the work is an earnest endeavour. Those who do know details of the period will delight in an accurate evocation of it – and those who don’t will sense that it is right.
It’s a shame the play stumbles in this regard, because in all other aspects it’s hard to view Lend Me A Tenor as anything but a huge step up in class, competence and flair for the club.
Without denigrating all of the productions of recent seasons – a number of which have reached higher-than-usual standard for community shows – Mooney’s enthusiasm for, and knowledge of, theatre is clearly a gift to the White Rock Players.
Well known for his Fighting Chance productions, he demonstrates that he understands staging, timing, pacing and all the tricks of the trade that make an audience sit up and take notice – and feel they’ve got their money’s worth from an evening at the theatre.
He doesn’t, crucially, appear to have any trouble comprehending the material he’s directing.
Everything about his work indicates he watches, and learns from, other productions, and strives hard to produce superior shows in an arena – downtown Vancouver – where the critical gaze can be withering indeed.
In short, Lend Me A Tenor has raised the bar in White Rock, jarring a venerable club from a comfort zone of complacency that has all too often resulted in stagnation. A show of this calibre puts White Rock on a par with Vancouver professional and semi-professional theatre. It’s a standard the club used to aspire to, particularly in the glory days of Franklin Johnson, and the current show proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that White Rock can still do it.
First-rate acting is the key to the success of this farce, in which an alarming indisposition of internationally-renowned Italian operatic tenor Tito Merelli threatens his appearance in a gala fundraising performance of Verdi’s Otello in Cleveland – and his hotel suite becomes the vortex of a storm of misunderstandings, desperate scheming and delayed assignations.
Partridge, veteran of many local productions, does his finest stage work to date as embattled opera manager Saunders – a laugh-provoking study of seething frustration and bubbling panic. Under Mooney’s sympathetic direction, Partridge rises to the challenge of a highly physical role, showing an excellent understanding of both the idiom and the era.
Slight Aaron Reno, as Saunders’ nerdy assistant Max, may miss some of the comic potential of the character but wins his share of laughs, successfully embodying an individual who turns out to be far more complex than he appears on the surface.
Nicole Smashnuk, as Saunders’ star-struck daughter, Maggie, emerges in Lend Me A Tenor as a comedienne of rare ability. She misses nary a beat in her depiction of Maggie’s fluttery reaction to Merelli’s charisma, and her professionally-delivered takes and asides are hilarious to behold.
As Merelli, Michael Kalmuk is admirably large in both form and gesture, totally assured and very funny. While his performance is flawless in accent, and mannerisms which are – as they must be – on the edge of caricature, he never loses sight of Tito’s basic humanity, and becomes all the more endearing because of it.
As his jealous wife, Maria, Launi Bowie is wonderfully passionate and dynamic, but also believable, convincing us she actually cares for the over-eating, womanizing slob. She makes a great stage partner for Kalmuk, and their heated back-and-forth exchanges, interspersed with genuinely romantic moments, are among the show’s many highlights.
Susanne de Pencier has some genuinely funny moments as silly opera society chairwoman Julia, particularly when she’s trying to interest a bemused Merelli in a dalliance; while Jackie Block does good, suitably unrestrained work as the show’s real vamp, Diana – an ambitious soprano who is determined to seduce the tenor as a means of furthering her career (a scene in which he mistakes her for a ‘professional,’ in another sense, is another high point of double-entendre hilarity).
Sean Donnelly again demonstrates his versatility in a relaxed, cheeky portrayal of an impertinent bellhop with operatic ambitions (one only wishes he had more of an opportunity to sing, although that would probably overshadow the brave, if somewhat uncertain, efforts of Kalmuk and Reno in that direction).
Andrea Olund’s set masterfully evokes the era, and she and Heather Maximea’s set decoration and the properties supplied by Naomi Mitchell and Rosemarie Schuster are generally exemplary.